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Constructivists suggest that a person’s reality is unique from others. Thus, this unique reality affects what and how effective knowledge is acquired, and is affected by numerous variables such as culture, past experiences, and past knowledge.


why logical positivism would not be a supporter for constructivist-based theories? Do you agree or disagree?

Hint: Can we “see” mental constructions?


how exogenous constructivism, endogenous constructivism, and dialectical constructivism differ, and why it matters.


how situated cognition (discussed in Week 3) supports the suggestions made by constructivism?


a personal experience in which constructivism ideologies explained either the effectiveness of, or the non-effectiveness of, the learning experience.

Would you consider this learning experience exploratory learning, inquiry learning, or problem-based learning? Why?


the implications in learning effectiveness that might exist if construction of individualized knowledge is negated.

Individualized Knowledge
Learning Objectives
After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
• Explain the fundamental ideologies of constructivism.
• Describe social constructivism and this perspective’s views of learning.
• Compare and contrast situated cognition and the foundational ideas of cognitivism.
• Explain the premise and variables associated with sociocultural theory.
• Discuss how problem-based learning supports constructivist-based learning theories.
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Have you ever:
• considered how your culture, social, and physical interactions affect how and what
you assign meaning to?
• learned a skill or professional role under the guidance of a more experienced peer?
• desired to learn in a more self-directed, meaningful way?
The material in this chapter will address an area of learning theory that consists of constructivist-based principles, which we can use to help understand the significance of these types of
questions. Foundationally, constructivism is a theory that supports the view that humans learn
by connecting new information to their existing knowledge and that the knowledge is individualized, personalized, and reflective of one’s own perception of the information learned.
For example, as you learn more about the field of psychology, the knowledge that you gain will
be built (constructed) upon your previous understanding. Your understanding, in essence, is
shaped by your initial perceptions about psychology, which may differ from another person’s
perception of psychology. Thus, someone who considers how a concept could be applied only
in psychological counseling may have more difficulty understanding how the same concept
applies in other areas, such as organizational or educational psychology. Additional theories
have been developed based on the foundations of constructivism. Social constructivism, situated cognition, and sociocultural theory (SCT) are some of the other theories based on constructivism, and they will be considered in this chapter.
Constructivist-based theories suggest
that one’s environment plays a role
in meaningful learning, as do socially
oriented cognitive theories (discussed
in Chapter 4). Constructivist theories,
however, also suggest that learners are
not just passive receivers of information but are active participants in their
knowledge development, and this idea
is a key component of the theories that
support the perspective of individualized knowledge construction.
As mentioned in earlier chapters, theoretical propositions are not always
accepted by all learning theorists. Constructivism, and the theories based on
its foundations, is no exception. The
notion that a learner’s knowledge is personalized is controversial because the assumptions
of constructivism are difficult to prove or disprove (Phillips, 2000); it is considered by some
as a subjective notion. Specifically, logical positivism, which is based on a perspective that
argues that problems should be answered only through empirical research, suggests that constructivism, whether as a theory or a pedagogical strategy, is ideological—that it lacks solid
findings obtained through controlled observation or experimentation (Gross & Levitt, 1994;
An aspect of constructivist thought is the idea of
learning that builds upon previous understanding
and knowledge.
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Matthews, 1992). Researchers aligned with other theoretical frameworks (e.g., behaviorism
or cognitivism) also have suggested that the notion of individualized knowledge construction
through discovery learning (drawing from one’s personal experiences to discover information) is a reflection of the values within education that were popular in the mid-20th century,
such as child-centered instruction (Zhenlin, 2009), rather than a viable learning theory.
Additionally, cognitive theory suggests that the instructor or counselor is the crucial part
of successful knowledge acquisition, and that discovery learning (a foundational proponent of constructivism) would be far too unstructured for effective knowledge development
(Bulgren, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1997; Rosenshine, 1997). Yet, research has suggested that
these arguments regarding the role of the instructor and discovery are not entirely accurate
ones because constructivist ideas have proven to be effective in applied settings, such as the
classroom (Brooks & Brooks, 1999) and in instructional design. Thus, you should continue
to use critical thinking while evaluating the information included in this chapter and come to
your own conclusions about the perspectives of constructivist-based theories.
The concepts and perspectives presented in this chapter align with the view that individuals
are active participants in the process of learning—that knowledge, and thus reality, is unique
and personalized to each individual. The readings and areas of theory have been chosen to
help support your understanding of the different frameworks that can be applied to discussions about knowledge construction:
• Sections 5.1 and 5.2 will help you establish an understanding of the core elements
of constructivism and social constructivism and how the concepts associated with
these perspectives support the belief that learners are participants in the knowledge
acquisition process.
• Section 5.3 presents a cognitivist view that acknowledges the situational effects on
learning, which is supported by constructivism’s ideology.
• Section 5.4 addresses sociocultural theory, which focuses on language development
as a key component of learning, suggesting that the interactions we experience can
affect this process.
• Section 5.5 considers problem-based learning (PBL), a type of learning activity
endorsed by constructivists, and the application example further supports how constructivist ideologies look in action.
The prominent differences in the theoretical models presented in these readings will be the
associative and specific nature of how, and to what extent, social, cultural, and physical variables influence the learning process.
As you evaluate the different theoretical frameworks, consider the findings that are presented,
whether details might be missing, and if the findings support the argument that successful
knowledge acquisition is more than the strict adherence to laws that often guide research.
Ask yourself questions as you read, such as the following:
• Is learning merely based upon the memory acquisition of the learner?
• Can successful learning take place through attention and schema development
• Do we learn better when we actively do something than when we just read or listen?
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Section 5.1
• Do constructivist-based theories reflect effective knowledge acquisition
These are just some of the many questions that should be considered when evaluating the
suggestions presented based on constructivist principles and theories.
5.1 Constructivism
It is important to understand that constructivist-based theories do not disprove cognitive or
behaviorist theories. Instead, previous theories are used in conjunction with the foundation that
learners should be the center of the process, organizing their own knowledge, based on their
own reality. Constructivism is viewed both as a theory and as a teaching strategy. Both of these
views can be construed as truths because the theory supports how we create knowledge and
the aligned teaching strategies promote this endeavor and are hence applicable and vital to
learning settings (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). Mascolo and Fischer (1995) have further suggested
that “constructivism is the philosophical and scientific position that knowledge arises through a
process of active construction” (p. 49), which is promoted by constructivist educational leaders.
The excerpts in this section are from Applefield, Huber, and Moallem (2000). The authors discuss
three types of constructivism and consider how learners construct knowledge. They also summarize some of the constructivist-based theories that will be elaborated upon in later sections
of the chapter. As you read, note that these authors emphasize constructivism in the context
of classroom interactions; however, such strategies are also relevant in a multitude of other
learning contexts. The constructivist framework offers trainers, educators, counselors, and other
mentors practical strategies for encouraging effective learning.
Excerpts from “Constructivism in Theory and Practice: Toward a Better Understanding”
By J. M. Applefield, R. Huber, and M. Moallem
Three Types of Constructivism
[. . .] Within constructivism there are different notions of the nature of knowledge and the
knowledge construction process. Moshman (1982) has identified three types of constructivism: exogenous constructivism, endogenous constructivism, and dialectical constructivism.
In exogenous constructivism or radical constructivism there is an external reality that is
reconstructed as knowledge is formed. Thus one’s mental structures develop to reflect the
organization of the world. The information processing conceptualizations of cognitive psychology emphasize the representation view of constructivism, calling attention to how we
construct and elaborate schemata and networks of information based on the external realities of the environments we experience.
Endogenous constructivism or cognitive constructivism (Cobb, 1994; Moshman, 1982)
focuses on internal, individual constructions of knowledge. This perspective, which is derived
from Piagetian theory (Piaget, 1970, 1977), emphasizes individual knowledge construction
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Section 5.1
stimulated by internal cognitive conflict as learners strive to resolve mental disequilibrium
(see Chapter 4). Essentially, children as well as older learners must negotiate the meaning of
experiences and phenomena that are discrepant from their existing schema. Students may
be said to author their own knowledge, advancing their cognitive structures by revising and
creating new understandings out of existing ones. This is accomplished through individual or
socially mediated discovery-oriented learning activities (such as the use of graphic organizers, labs, or group work).
Dialectical constructivism or social constructivism (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Rogoff,
1990) views the origin of knowledge construction as being the social intersection of people,
interactions that involve sharing, comparing, and debating among learners and mentors.
Through a highly interactive process,
the social milieu of learning is accorded
center stage and learners both refine
their own meanings and help others
find meaning. In this way knowledge
is mutually built. This view is a direct
reflection of Vygotsky’s (1978b) sociocultural theory (SCT) (discussed further in section 5.4), which accentuates
the supportive guidance of mentors
as they enable the apprentice learner
to achieve successively more complex
skill, understanding, and ultimately
independent competence.
When a teacher allows students to discuss, argue,
and understand a topic, it is an example of dialectical or social constructivism. The students are interacting with each other, learning different points of
view, and finding meaning in a particular topic.
The fundamental nature of social
constructivism is collaborative social
interaction in contrast to individual
investigation of cognitive constructivism. Through the cognitive give and
take of social interactions, one constructs personal knowledge. In addition, the context in which learning occurs is inseparable
from emergent thought. This latter view, known as contextualism in psychology, becomes a
central tenet of constructivism when expressed as situated cognition, which is discussed in
section 5.3. Social constructivism captures the most general present perspective on constructivism with its emphasis on the importance of social exchanges for cognitive growth and the
impact of culture and historical context on learning. [. . .]
Constructing Knowledge
[. . .] There is an important similarity among most constructivists with regard to four central
characteristics believed to influence all learning (and can be identified in other theoretical
1. Learners construct their own learning
2. The dependence of new learning on students’ existing understanding
3. The critical role of social interaction
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Section 5.1
4. The necessity of activities that allow learners to discover meaningful knowledge
through exploration of real-world problems, or authentic learning tasks (Bruning,
Royce, & Dennison, 1995; Pressley, Harris, & Marks, 1992)
For learners to construct meaning, they must actively strive to make sense of new experiences
and in so doing must relate it to what is already known or believed about a topic. Students
develop knowledge through an active construction process, not through the passive reception
of information (Brophy, 1992). In other words, learners must build their own understanding.
How information is presented and how learners are supported in the process of constructing knowledge are of major significance. The preexisting knowledge that learners bring to
each learning task is emphasized too. Students’ current understandings provide the immediate context for interpreting any new learning. Regardless of the nature or sophistication of a
learner’s existing schema, each person’s existing knowledge structure will have a powerful
influence on what is learned and whether and how conceptual change occurs.
Dialogue is the catalyst for knowledge acquisition. Understanding is facilitated by exchanges
that occur through social interaction, through questioning and explaining, challenging and
offering timely support and feedback. The concept of learning communities has been offered
as the ideal learning culture for group instruction (Brown, 1994; Brown & Campione, 1994).
These communities focus on helping group members learn, by supporting one another
through respectful listening and encouragement. The goal is to engender a spirit and culture
of openness, exploration, and a shared commitment to learning.
Situated cognition or learning (discussed further in section 5.3) is a concept advocated in
social constructivist approaches and is a natural extension of the importance attached to the
context, social and cultural, in which learning is believed to be born. Knowledge is conceived
as being embedded in and connected to the situation where the learning occurs. As a consequence, thinking and knowledge that is constructed are inextricably tied to the immediate social and physical context of the learning experience. And what is learned tends to be
context-bound or tied to the situation in which it is learned (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Evidence
for the situational nature of learning can be seen in numerous cases where students’ school
learning fails to transfer readily to relevant tasks outside of school. Brown et al. (1989) chronicle how people can acquire rather sophisticated mathematical operations in one setting and
yet be quite unable to apply those same operations in another setting.
Just how teachers and peers support and contribute to learning is clarified by the concepts
of scaffolding, cognitive apprenticeship, tutoring, and cooperative learning and learning communities (Brown, 1994; Rogoff, 1998). Cognition is viewed as a collaborative process, and
modern constructivist thought provides the theoretical basis for cooperative learning, project or problem-based learning, and other discovery-oriented instructional approaches, all of
which appeal to the powerful social nature of learning. As students are exposed to their peers’
thinking processes, appropriation of others’ ideas and ways of thinking is possible. Therefore,
constructivists make extensive use of cooperative learning, a strategy that encourages small
groups of learners to work together on tasks, as well as peer tutoring, believing that students
will learn more readily from having dialog with each other about significant problems.
A second key concept derives from Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development
(ZPD) (discussed further in section 5.4) (Kozulin, 1986). When children work on tasks that
cannot be accomplished alone but can be successfully completed with the assistance of a
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Section 5.1
person competent in the task, they are said to be working within their zone of proximal development. (See Figure 5.1.) Children working in cooperative groups will generally encounter a
peer who possesses a slightly higher cognitive level, one within the child’s zone of proximal
Figure 5.1: Zone of proximal development (ZPD)
ZPD indicates an area of development that should be supported by a more experienced expert to
maximize knowledge acquisition.
r skills
level of know
ch knowledge o
l de
Adapted from “Piaget’s Theory of Child Language and Thought,” by L. S. Vygotsky, in L. S. Vygotsky (Ed.), E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar (Trans.),
Thought and Language (pp. 9–24), 1962, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Copyright 1962 by L. S. Vygotsky. Adapted with permission.
The concept of cognitive apprenticeship is analogous to that of apprenticeships in many
occupations where one learns on the job by closely working with a master. The master models behavior and gives feedback and gradually allows the novice increasing opportunity to
independently exercise the skills of the profession. A substantial aspect of the learning is the
socialization into the norms and behavior of the profession. The experience of teachers and
physician interns demonstrates the shadowing and modeling that occurs during this critical period in the development and induction into these professions. More generally, one can
say that a cognitive apprenticeship relationship exists between teachers and students to the
extent that teachers provide scaffolding for students, through the use of step-by-step guiding
of the new knowledge from less complicated to more (Schweisfurth, 2013). At the same time
that students are given complex, authentic tasks such as projects, simulations, and problems
involving community issues, they are also given sufficient assistance to achieve the desired
outcomes. [. . .]
Since constructivists believe that the learner must transform or appropriate whatever is
learned, one can say that all learning is discovered. To appropriate new understandings from
one’s social environment and to become an efficient maker of meaning requires the adoption of specific intellectual skills, ones that should be modeled from more competent adults
and peers. Thus generative learning strategies (learning-to-learn) may be explicitly taught
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Section 5.1
to students or may be discovered by students as they are trying to find strategies for solving
problems. For example, students have been guided to generate their own questions and summaries and analogies during reading (King, 1992a; Kourilsky & Wittrock, 1992; Wittrock,
1991) and while listening to lectures (King, 1992b). Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown,
1984) is a successful method for teaching reading comprehension in which metacognitive
skills, including question generation, prediction, and summary, are taught through teacher
modeling, followed by student enactment of the same metacognitive behaviors. The goal is to
encourage self-regulated learning, by helping learners develop effective learning strategies
and knowledge of when to use them. [. . .]
The more traditional approach to instruction
involves isolating the basic skills, teaching these
separately and building these incrementally before
tackling higher-order tasks. This is an essentially
objectivist and behavioral approach to instruction,
although cognitive information processing views
often lead to similar instructional practices. Constructivists turn this highly sequential approach
on its head. Instead of carefully structuring the elements of topics to be learned, learning proceeds
from the natural need to develop understanding
and skills required for completion of significant
tasks. Learning occurs in a manner analogous to
just-in-time manufacturing, where raw materials
are received just prior to their use rather than held
in expensive inventories. [. . .]
According to constructivist thought,
learners should be challenged by
thoughts and ideas, generating their
own questions and assumptions.
Learning occurs through reflection.
Constructivism in Practice
[. . .] Although constructivism is a theory about learning rather than a description of teaching, some important strides toward defining the relationship between theory and practice
have been made. The following pedagogical recommendations, while general in nature, have
been derived from fundamental constructivist principles of learning (Confrey, 1990; Brooks
& Brooks, 1993; Fosnot, 1996).
1. Learners should be encouraged to raise questions, generate hypotheses, and test
their validity.
2. Learners should be challenged by ideas and experiences that generate inner cognitive conflict or disequilibrium. Students’ errors should be viewed positively as
opportunities for learners and teachers to explore conceptual understanding.
3. Students should be given time to engage in reflection through journal writing, drawing, modeling, and discussion. Learning occurs through reflective abstraction.
4. The learning environment should provide ample opportunities for dialogue, and the
classroom should be seen as a “community of discourse engaged in activity, reflection, and conversation” (Fosnot, 1989).
5. In a community of learners, it is the students themselves who must communicate
their ideas to others, defend them, and justify them.
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Section 5.1
6. Students should work with big ideas, central organizing principles that have the
power to generalize across experiences and disciplines.
[. . .] The overriding goal of the constructivist educator is to stimulate thinking in learners that
results in meaningful learning, deeper understanding, and transfer of learning to real-world
contexts. To accomplish this goal, a constructivist framework leads teachers to incorporate
strategies that encourage knowledge construction through primarily social learning processes, in which students develop their own understanding through interactions with peers
and the teacher. In addition, in order to make manifest and link new knowledge to learners’
current understanding, the constructivist teacher selects authentic tasks and uses more illdefined problems and higher-order questions. A significant problem tackled by small groups
of students promotes involvement, curiosity, and heightened motivation. [. . .] The learner’s
primary goal in this environment is to become a more active learner, to interact with peers,
and to always view learning as a search for meaning. [. . .]
Source: From The High School Journal, vol. 84 Copyright © 2000 by the University of North
Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
Discovery Learning
Discovery learning is an element of constructivism that was first presented in section i.4. This
approach to learning allows learners to explore and uncover knowledge on their own. Discovery
learning also emphasizes that learners must connect new information to their previous experiences. Borthick and Jones (2000) have provided the
following description of discovery learning: “Learning theorists characterize learning to solve problems
as discovery learning, in which participants learn
to recognize a problem, characterize what a solution would look like, search for relevant information,
develop a solution strategy, and execute the chosen
strategy” (p. 181).
The next excerpt in this section is from Dalgarno, Kennedy, and Bennett (2014). They consider how constructivism as a pedagogical approach can include
discovery learning. The reading also evaluates the
basis for using constructivist-based strategies within
learning or training environments. Consider the following strategies for instruction that encourage discovery learning:
Discovery learning emphasizes questioning, interpretation, curiosity, and
reflection. This allows learners to connect new information to past experiences or knowledge.
• Interpret artwork.
• Include manipulatives (e.g., graphic organizers, concept maps, lab experiments).
• Pause during instruction to allow questions.
• Apply learning to personal experiences.
• Use gaming techniques.
• Introduce a question, allow learners to discover their own answers, and then have a
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Section 5.1
• Encourage problem solving.
• Encourage curiosity.
• Encourage reflection.
• Be open to “try again” opportunities.
As you read, consider how the identified strategies support the constructivist viewpoints.
Excerpts from “The Impact of Students’ Exploration Strategies
on Discovery Learning Using Computer-Based Simulations”
By B. Dalgarno, G. Kennedy, and S. Bennett
The notion of discovery learning has its origins in the 1960s, with Jerome Bruner one of the
first to articulate in detail the potential benefits of instructional approaches with discovery
learning at their core (Bruner, 1961). There are a range of related learning design approaches
that are similar to or draw on elements of discovery learning, including exploratory learning
(De Freitas & Oliver, 2006; Reilly, 1974), inquiry learning (Kuhn, Black, Keselman, & Kaplan,
2000; Rutherford, 1964) and problem-based learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). See Table
5.1 for more about these three types of learning. [. . .] The idea that learning involves active
knowledge construction has been used in support of inquiry-based learning approaches in
the sciences, including discovery learning involving the use of computer-based simulations
(De Jong & Van Joolingen, 1998). [. . .]
Table 5.1: Types of learning that emphasize discovery
exploratory learning
The purposeful process of exploring how the learner’s current knowledge may
be related to a new concept
problem-based learning
The process of presenting an open-ended problem that allows the learner
to acquire experience in problem solving and increase his or her knowledge
about a concept
inquiry learning
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Often led by a facilitator, the process of asking questions, posing scenarios, or
presenting problems through which the learner is guided toward an understanding of new concepts
A key element of constructivist theories of learning, and one that underpins discovery learning and related instructional approaches, is the idea that each person forms his or her own
knowledge representation, building on his or her individual experiences—an idea generally
attributed to Piaget (1973). According to constructivist theory, this knowledge representation
is constantly reviewed and revised, as inconsistencies between the learner’s current knowledge representation and experience are encountered through active exploration (Bruner,
1962; von Glasersfeld, 1984). Piaget (1973) explains the learning process in terms of equilibration. Equilibration begins with the construction by the individuals of their own internal
knowledge representation, or in Piaget’s terms, they accommodate their knowledge representation or schema to fit with their experience. Subsequent experiences that are consistent
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Section 5.2
Social Constructivism
with this knowledge representation are then assimilated into this schema. New experiences
that do not fit with their current knowledge representation result in a further accommodation of their schema to fit with this new experience. Clearly, such an account of the learning
process, with its emphasis on constructing and reconstructing an individual knowledge representation through active exploration, has a natural fit with the idea of discovery learning.
[. . .]
Source: Dalgarno, B., Kennedy, G., & Bennett, S. (2014). The impact of students’ exploration
strategies on discovery learning using computer-based simulations. Educational Media International, 51(4), 310–329. Published by Taylor & Francis. Copyright © 2014 Routledge.
A key aspect of constructivist theory is that learners construct their own knowledge, which
affects one’s memory development and recall. (The construction of knowledge has also been
applied to other learning theories that will be discussed in upcoming sections of this text.) As
outlined in this section, constructivism is a theory based on the belief that one’s knowledge is
actively constructed and influenced by a person’s environment (Applefield et al., 2000; Dalgarno
et al., 2014). Both sets of authors also provide practical strategies that can be used in learning
environments and note additional frameworks that include constructivist foundations. Situated
cognition (section 5.3) and problem-based learning (section 5.5) will build upon the information
about constructivism presented in section 5.1.
Social constructivism (also called dialectical constructivism), the focus of section 5.2, considers how the social aspect of our surroundings influences this construction by suggesting that
although we each have the ability to regulate our knowledge acquisition, social mediators can
influence all learners without their conscious recognition of the impacts. These effects also blur
the line between psychology and sociology (the study of society), and thus open a plethora of
considerations for understanding how a person learns and how a person learns most effectively.
5.2 Social Constructivism
Social constructivism suggests that a
learner’s knowledge is based on social
interactions—how learners experience
and share their environments. This perspective supports the notion that the
harmony between individuals and their
society both positively and negatively
affects successful learning. For example,
socially constructed knowledge about
the game of basketball would be supported more effectively by playing basketball and socially interacting with
others who play. The importance of this
basketball knowledge could be negatively affected if one is socially interactive with people who are uninterested
in the subject.
Social interactions can both help and hurt knowledge acquisition. If there is a common goal or interest (e.g., a study topic), then a group of students
studying together will most likely aid in new and
retained knowledge.
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Social Constructivism
Section 5.2
As discussed in section 5.1, constructivism suggests that there is no shared reality but that reality
is created by the individual (von Glasersfeld, 2001). Social constructivism further suggests that
reality not only is created by the individual, but also is created through his or her interactions
with others. Meaning in an individual’s reality is thus based in his or her society and culture.
For example, a person who lives in the rural areas of Wyoming would have a decisively different perceived reality than someone who lives in the Bronx, New York City. Social constructivism
encourages such individualized meanings, suggesting that there being two truths does not imply
that one of the two truths is false or flawed.
The excerpts featured next are from Kim (2001). The article clarifies the differences between the
original theory of constructivism and social constructivism by considering an additional variable: social interaction. Constructivism suggests that an individual’s previous knowledge can
affect the acquisition of all new knowledge; social constructivism suggests that an individual’s
previous social interactions are also crucial to all knowledge development.
Excerpts from “Social Constructivism”
By B. Kim
[. . .] Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of culture and context in understanding what occurs in society and constructing knowledge based on this understanding (Derry,
1999; McMahon, 1997). This perspective is closely associated with many contemporary theories, most notably the developmental theories of Vygotsky and Bruner (section 5.4), and Bandura’s social cognitive theory (discussed in Chapter 4) (Schunk, 2000).
Assumptions of Social Constructivism
Social constructivism is based on specific assumptions about reality, knowledge, and learning. To understand and apply models of instruction that are rooted in the perspectives of
social constructivists, it is important to know the premises that underlie them.
Reality: Social constructivists believe that reality is constructed through
human activity. Members of a society together invent the properties of the
world (Kukla, 2000). For the social constructivist, reality cannot be discovered: It does not exist prior to its social invention.
Knowledge: To social constructivists, knowledge is also a human product, and
is socially and culturally constructed (Ernest, 1999; Gredler, 1997; Prawat &
Floden, 1994). Individuals create meaning through their interactions with
each other and with the environment they live in.
Learning: Social constructivists view learning as a social process. It does not
take place only within an individual, nor is it a passive development of behaviors that are shaped by external forces (McMahon, 1997). Meaningful learning
occurs when individuals are engaged in social activities.
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Section 5.2
Social Constructivism
Intersubjectivity of Social Meanings
Intersubjectivity is a shared understanding among individuals whose interaction is based
on common interests and assumptions that form the ground for their communication (Rogoff,
1990). For example, individuals living in an urban community might have a shared understanding about what a community is and what it does, which potentially differs from the
shared understanding among individuals in rural communities. Communications and interactions entail socially agreed-upon ideas of the world and the social patterns and rules of language use (Ernest, 1999). Construction of social meanings, therefore, involves intersubjectivity
among individuals. Social meanings and knowledge are shaped and evolve through negotiation within the communicating groups (Gredler, 1997; Prawat & Floden, 1994). Any personal
meanings shaped through these experiences
are affected by the intersubjectivity of the
community to which the people belong.
People living in a large, bustling city may have
intersubjectivity because they share common
living situations, experiences, or interests.
This may differ for a rural community.
Intersubjectivity not only provides the
grounds for communication but also supports people to extend their understanding
of new information and activities among the
group members (Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky,
1978b). Knowledge is derived from interactions between people and their environments and resides within cultures (Schunk,
2000; McMahon, 1997). The construction of
knowledge is also influenced by the intersubjectivity formed by cultural and historical factors of the community (Gredler, 1997;
Prawat & Floden, 1994). When the members
of the community are aware of their intersubjective meanings, it is easier for them to
understand new information and activities
that arise in the community.
Social Context for Learning
Some social constructivists discuss two aspects of social context that largely affect the nature
and extent of the learning (Gredler, 1997; Wertsch, 1991): historical developments inherited
by the learner as a member of a particular culture. Symbol systems, such as language, logic,
and mathematical systems, are learned throughout the learner’s life. These symbol systems
dictate how and what is learned.
The nature of the learner’s social interaction with knowledgeable members of the society is
important. Without the social interaction with more knowledgeable others, it is impossible
to acquire social meaning of important symbol systems and learn how to use them. Young
children develop their thinking abilities by interacting with adults.
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Social Constructivism
Section 5.2
General Perspectives of Social Constructivism on Learning
Social constructivists see as crucial both the context in which learning occurs and the social
contexts that learners bring to their learning environment. There are four general perspectives that inform how we could facilitate the learning within a framework of social constructivism (Gredler, 1997):
Cognitive tools perspective: Cognitive tools perspective focuses on the learning of cognitive skills and strategies. Students engage in those social learning
activities that involve hands-on project-based methods and utilization of discipline-based cognitive tools (Gredler, 1997; Prawat & Floden, 1994). Together
they produce a product and, as a group, impose meaning on it through the
social learning process.
Idea-based social constructivism: Idea-based social constructivism sets education’s priority on important concepts in the various disciplines (e.g., partwhole relations in mathematics, photosynthesis in science, and point of view
in literature) (Gredler, 1997, p. 59; Prawat, 1995; Prawat & Floden, 1994).
These “big ideas” expand learner vision and become important foundations
for learners’ thinking and on construction of social meaning (Gredler, 1997).
Pragmatic or emergent approach: Social constructivists with this perspective
assert that the implementation of social constructivism in class should be
emergent as the need arises (Gredler, 1997). Its proponents hold that knowledge, meaning, and understanding of the world can be addressed in the classroom from both the view of individual learner and the collective view of the
entire class (Cobb, 1995; Gredler, 1997).
Transactional or situated cognitive perspectives: This perspective focuses on
the relationship between the people and their environment. Humans are a
part of the constructed environment (including social relationships); the
environment is in turn one of the characteristics that constitutes the individual (Bredo, 1994; Gredler, 1997). When a mind operates, its owner is interacting with the environment. Therefore, if the environment and social relationships among group members change, the tasks of each individual also change
(Bredo, 1994; Gredler, 1997). Learning thus should not take place in isolation
from the environment.
Social Constructivism and Instructional Models
Instructional models based on the social constructivist perspective stress the need for collaboration among learners and with practitioners in the society (Lave & Wenger, 1991; McMahon, 1997). Lave and Wenger (1991) assert that a society’s practical knowledge is situated in
relations among practitioners, their practice, and the social organization and political economy of communities of practice. For this reason, learning should involve such knowledge and
practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Gredler, 1997). Social constructivist approaches can include
reciprocal teaching, peer collaboration, cognitive apprenticeships, problem-based instruction, webquests, anchored instruction, and other methods that involve learning with others
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Social Constructivism
Section 5.2
(Schunk, 2000). For example, based on social constructivism, an instructor who encourages
students with different backgrounds to work together in a collaborative way (e.g., a group
project) increases the likelihood that students will explore information from multiple points
of view.
Source: Kim, B. (2001). Social constructivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Used by permission of Michael Orey.
Social constructivism is a framework that emphasizes society as a key moderator of how meaning is constructed. To a social cognitivist, knowledge is considered useless if it has no meaning within one’s socially interactive environments. For example, what if you left the country to
attend school and when you returned 10 years later, you no longer spoke your native language?
Does what you say to those around you have meaning? A constructivist would suggest that the
knowledge you have gained (the new language) will not have meaning in your previous environment (unless you stumble upon another person who knows this new language). (See Applying
Skeptical Inquiry: Shaped by the World Around Us for another example of how our prior experiences with others can shape how we perceive the world around us.) Social constructivism, however, is not the only theoretical framework with foundations that apply constructivist ideologies.
Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Shaped by the World Around Us
Every learner has a unique background of
experiences. It is important to remember that part
of who we are is what we know, and each of us
might know different things. Consider the nearby
image. If you were asked to write a story about
this image, do you think it would match someone
else’s story? The man in this image could represent
something different to you than he does to someone
else. Maybe one story describes this man as a game
hunter, but another story might indicate that this
man is homeless. The image might even trigger
different personal beliefs or emotions among those
who see it.
Have you ever judged a person’s actions as
unacceptable based on your own notions
about acceptable behaviors?
Did you consider that perhaps what
that person was doing was common and
acceptable in his or her own culture?
Our backgrounds affect how we
process information in our environment. Would everyone who
sees this man have the same perception about him?
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Section 5.3
Situated Cognition
In section 5.3, we will discuss situated cognition, a theory that also suggests that knowledge is
based on interacting situational variables in our environment. This theory provides an additional example of how models for learning seemingly mesh important variables from different psychological camps (e.g. behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist) more frequently. One
important difference between situated cognition and social constructivism is the attention to
language as the socially moderated key to meaning in knowledge that is emphasized in situated
cognition theory.
5.3 Situated Cognition
As was mentioned in section 5.1, situated cognition presents similar ideologies as constructivism
does, and it further explores the relationships among what is learned, how it is learned, and how
it is applied. Situated cognition suggests that knowledge is also determined by the contexts in
which it is applied and that language is a key moderator of knowledge meaning. For example,
consider homophones, words that have the same pronunciation but can have different spellings
and meanings. If your friend mentions that she saw some cranes today, what might you take
cranes to mean? Your interpretation of this word could vary. Perhaps you live in a geographic
region that has large populations of cranes (birds). Or perhaps you live in an area where large
buildings are being constructed and there are several construction cranes (machines used to
move heavy objects). As another example, if the word
sow was written, and not spoken, your understanding of the word would depend on how it is used in a
sentence because sow could refer to a female pig or
to the process of planting seeds.
Depending on the context of the sentence in which the word sow is written,
a person may picture someone sowing
seed or a female pig. This is an example of social cognition.
There is also a word used within learning and educational psychologies that exemplifies this concept
of context dependence: humanism. Depending on
the domain one is studying, humanism could mean
something different and be associated with different
ideas. When used in discussions about religion and
philosophy, humanism will have a different meaning
than the same term has in discussions about learning. (These associations with humanism will come
up again in Chapter 6.) An understanding of situated
learning is a useful perspective to keep in mind when
considering how humans learn, and it reminds learners to carefully address content when they develop
their schemata.
The excerpts featured in this section are from Brown,
Collins, and Duguid (1989). The reading introduces
us to a theory that suggests that knowledge development is individualized and based on one’s environments, similar to constructivist theory. Situated cognition is based on constructivist principles (Confrey,
1990; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Fosnot, 1996). (See
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Situated Cognition
Section 5.3
“Constructivism in Practice” in section 5.1.) Situated cognition argues that learning is dependent
on the meaning derived from the social, physical, and cultural contexts in which it is applied.
Excerpts from “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning”
By J. S. Brown, A. Collins, and P. Duguid
[. . .] Recent investigations of learning challenge the separating of what is learned from how
it is learned and used. The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed is now
argued as not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather,
it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to coproduce knowledge
through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are dependent on the
context in which they are applied. [. . .]
Situated Knowledge and Learning
Miller and Gildea’s (1987) work on vocabulary teaching has shown how the assumption that
knowing and doing can be separated leads to a teaching method that ignores the way situations structure cognition. Their work has described how children are taught words from
dictionary definitions and a few exemplary sentences, and they have compared this method
with the way vocabulary is normally learned outside school.
People generally learn words in the context of ordinary communication. This process is startlingly fast and successful. Miller and Gildea note that by listening, talking, and reading, the
average 17-year-old has learned vocabulary at a rate of 5,000 words per year (13 per day) for
over 16 years. By contrast, learning words from abstract definitions and sentences taken out
of the context of normal use, the way vocabulary has often been taught, is slow and generally
unsuccessful. There is barely enough classroom time to teach more than 100 to 200 words
per year. Moreover, much of what is taught turns out to be almost useless in practice. They
give the following examples of students’ uses of vocabulary acquired this way:
“Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn’t be here.”
“I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.”
“Mrs. Morrow stimulated the soup.”
(Note that the dictionary definitions that the students used in writing these
sentences are as follows: Correlate—be related one to the other; meticulous—
very careful; stimulate—stir up. They were given these definitions with little
or no contextual help, so it would be unfair to regard the students as foolish
for using the words as they did.)
Given the method, such mistakes seem unavoidable. Teaching from dictionaries assumes that
definitions and exemplary sentences are self-contained “pieces” of knowledge. But words
and sentences are not islands, entire unto themselves. Language use would involve a constant confrontation with ambiguity, polysemy, nuance, metaphor, and so forth were these not
resolved with the extra-linguistic help that the context provides (Nunberg, 1978).
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Situated Cognition
Section 5.3
Prominent among the intricacies of language that depend on extra-linguistic help are indexical words—words like I, here, now, next, tomorrow, afterwards, this. Indexical terms are those
that “index” or more plainly point to a part of the situation in which communication is being
conducted. They are not merely context sensitive; they are completely context dependent.
Words like I or now, for instance, can only be interpreted in the context of their use. Surprisingly, all words can be seen as at least partially indexical (Barwise & Perry, 1983).
Experienced readers implicitly understand that words are situated. They, therefore, ask for
the rest of the sentence or the context before committing themselves to an interpretation of a
word. And they go to dictionaries with situated examples of usage in mind. The situation as well
as the dictionary supports the interpretation. But the students who produced the sentences
listed had no support from a normal communicative situation. In tasks like theirs, dictionary
definitions are assumed to be self-sufficient. The extra-linguistic props that would structure,
constrain, and ultimately allow interpretation in normal communication are ignored.
Learning from dictionaries, like any method that tries to teach abstract concepts independently of authentic situations, overlooks the way understanding is developed through continued, situated use. This development, which involves complex social negotiations, does not
crystallize into a categorical definition. Because it is dependent on situations and negotiations, the meaning of a word cannot, in principle, be captured by a definition, even when the
definition is supported by a couple of exemplary sentences.
All knowledge is, we believe, like language. Its constituent parts index the world and so are
inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced. A concept, for
example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in a new, more densely textured form. So a concept,
like the meaning of a word, is always under construction. This would also appear to be true of
apparently well-defined, abstract technical concepts. Even these are not wholly definable and
defy categorical description; part of their meaning is always inherited from the context of use.
Learning and Tools
To explore the idea that concepts are both situated and progressively developed through
activity, we should abandon any notion that they are abstract, self-contained entities. Instead,
it may be more useful to consider conceptual knowledge as, in some ways, similar to a set of
tools. Tools share several significant features with knowledge: They can only be fully understood through use, and using them entails both changing the user’s view of the world and
adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used.
First, if knowledge is thought of as tools, we can illustrate Whitehead’s (1929) distinction
between the mere acquisition of inert concepts and the development of useful, robust knowledge. It is quite possible to acquire a tool but to be unable to use it. Similarly, it is common for
students to acquire algorithms, routines, and decontextualized definitions that they cannot
use and that, therefore, lie inert. Unfortunately, this problem is not always apparent. Oldfashioned pocket knives, for example, have a device for removing stones from horses’ hooves.
People with this device may know its use and be able to talk wisely about horses, hooves, and
stones. But they may never betray—or even recognize—that they would not begin to know
how to use this implement on a horse. Similarly, students can often manipulate algorithms,
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Situated Cognition
Section 5.3
routines, and definitions they have acquired with apparent competence and yet not reveal, to
their teachers or themselves, that they would have no idea what to do if they came upon the
domain equivalent of a limping horse.
Learners who use tools actively rather than just
acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly
rich implicit understanding of the world in which
they use the tools and of the tools themselves. The
understanding, both of the world and of the tool,
continually changes as a result of their interaction. Learning and acting are interestingly indistinct, learning being a continuous, lifelong process
resulting from acting in situations.
Learning how to use a tool involves far more than
can be accounted for in any set of explicit rules. The A student who is taught mathematics,
occasions and conditions for use arise directly out such as trigonometry, will not acquire
of the context of activities of each community that competence and knowledge unless he or
uses the tool, framed by the way members of that she uses this tool, or skill, often.
community see the world. The community and its
viewpoint, quite as much as the tool itself, determine how a tool is used. Thus, carpenters and
cabinet makers use chisels differently. Because tools and the way they are used reflect the
particular accumulated insights of communities, it is not possible to use a tool appropriately
without understanding the community or culture in which it is used.
Conceptual tools similarly reflect the cumulative wisdom of the culture in which they are used
and the insights and experience of individuals. Their meaning is not invariant but a product
of negotiation within the community. Again, appropriate use is not simply a function of the
abstract concept alone. It is a function of the culture and the activities in which the concept has
been developed. Just as carpenters and cabinet makers use chisels differently, so physicists
and engineers use mathematical formulae differently. Activity, concept, and culture are interdependent. No one can be totally understood without the other two. Learning must involve
all three. Teaching methods often try to impart abstracted concepts as fixed, well-defined,
independent entities that can be explored in prototypical examples and textbook exercises.
But such exemplification cannot provide the important insights into either the culture or the
authentic activities of members of that culture that learners need.
To talk about academic disciplines, professions, or even manual trades as communities or
cultures will perhaps seem strange. Yet communities of practitioners are connected by more
than their ostensible tasks. They are bound by intricate, socially constructed webs of belief,
which are essential to understanding what they do (Geertz, 1983). The activities of many
communities are unfathomable, unless they are viewed from within the culture. The culture
and the use of a tool act together to determine the way practitioners see the world, and the
way the world appears to them determines the culture’s understanding of the world and of
the tools. Unfortunately, students are too often asked to use the tools of a discipline without
being able to adopt its culture. To learn to use tools as practitioners use them, a student, like
an apprentice, must enter that community and its culture. Thus, in a significant way, learning
is, we believe, a process of enculturation [. . .], the conscious or unconscious adoption of the
behavior and belief systems of new social groups. [. . .]
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Situated Cognition
Section 5.3
Learning Through Cognitive Apprenticeship
[. . .] Introduced in section 5.1, cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989)
embraces methods that stand in contradiction to the idea that knowledge is relatively unfixed
and unaffected by the activity through which it is acquired. Cognitive apprenticeship methods
try to enculturate students into authentic practices through activity and social interaction in a
way similar to that evident—and evidently successful—in craft apprenticeship. [. . .]
The development of concepts out of and through continuing authentic activity is the approach
of cognitive apprenticeship—a term closely allied to our image of knowledge as a tool. Cognitive apprenticeship supports learning in a domain by enabling students to acquire, develop,
and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity. Similarly, craft apprenticeship enables
apprentices to acquire and develop the tools and skills of their craft through authentic work
at and membership in their trade. Through this process, apprentices enter the culture of
practice. So the term apprenticeship helps to emphasize the centrality of activity in learning
and knowledge and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of learning. And apprenticeship also suggests the paradigm of situated modeling,
coaching, and fading (Collins et al., 1989), whereby teachers or coaches promote learning,
first by making explicit their tacit knowledge or by modeling their strategies for students in
authentic activity. Then, teachers and colleagues support students’ attempts at doing the task.
And finally they empower the students to continue independently. The progressive process
of learning and enculturation perhaps argues that Increasingly Complex Microworlds (see
Burton, Brown, & Fischer, 1984) can be replaced by increasing complex enculturating environments. [. . .]
In essence, cognitive apprenticeship attempts to promote learning within the nexus of activity,
tool, and culture that we have described. Learning, both outside and inside school, advances
through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge. Resnick
has pointed out (1988) that throughout most of their lives people learn and work collaboratively, not individually, as they are asked to do in many schools. Lampert’s (1986) and Schoenfeld’s (1985, 1991) work; Scardamalia, Bereiter, and Steinbach’s teaching of writing (1984);
and Palincsar and Brown’s (1984) work with reciprocal teaching of reading all employ some
form of social interaction, social construction of knowledge, and collaboration. [. . .]
Source: Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, S. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42. Copyright © 1989 SAGE Publications.
As a learning theory, situated cognition differs from other theories in that the meaning of knowledge is more specifically about the role of language development. Words are the basis for communication, which in turn affects the social interactions we experience. The construction of
knowledge suggested by situated cognition identifies that learning opportunities are contextually dependent and affect one’s reality and thus the meaning that one assigns to new knowledge.
An additional constructivist-based theory, sociocultural theory (SCT), will be the topic in section
5.4, where we will continue to evaluate the different constructivism and constructivist-based
theories that can help us better understand how we learn.
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Section 5.4
Sociocultural Theory
5.4 Sociocultural Theory
Sociocultural theory (SCT), first introduced in section 5.1, takes a closer look at language development and considers how our interactions affect learning and the construction of knowledge.
Specifically, SCT places much emphasis on the effects of language in the learning process. For
example, throughout history, languages have been adapted to satisfy specific needs, limitations,
and social situations—environments that influence learners. Urban Dictionary (http://www
.urbandictionary.com) would be an example of this adaptation. This resource catalogues words
and phrases used among different social groups, but most of these
words are not officially recognized by academic resources such as
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. But even words in Urban Dictionary are not officially recognized words until they are consistently
used by others and assigned meanings through interactions. As
an additional example, consider SMS language or textese (also
known by several other names: txt-speak, txtese, txt, txtspk, txtk,
idea that
texting language, txt lingo, SMSish, txtslang, and txt talk). This is
the language developed by groups to communicate using mobile language development is
phone text messaging or Internet-based communication such as a result of social interacemail and instant messaging. In these contexts, learners identify tions and activities that
and apply spellings, abbreviations, or symbols that they might not individuals and then
groups participate in.
use in other situations.
There is a social, cultural,
and physical impact on
language that a society
The excerpt featured in this section is from Alavinia, Aslrasouli,
and Rostami (2014) and introduces us to SCT. SCT provides us
with an additional understanding of how the individualized and
unique activities we participate in affect our knowledge acquisition. Unlike other theories, however, SCT more deliberately interconnects the process of learning
with the individualized contexts in which we engage. Theorists posing SCT suggest that the contextual variables (social, cultural, and physical) are not simply moderators of what and how we
learn. Rather, these variables are the pendulum for what and how we learn, influencing the key
learning means: language. SCT promotes the active engagement of learners with the environment to encourage effective and meaningful learning.
As you read the following section, take note of the words that come to mind that you might use
only within your unique environments, such as among your friends, family, or workplace. These
are the learned languages that have derived meanings based on your social circles.
Excerpts from “Reappraisal of the Pivotal Role of Social Interactionist
Perspectives in Furthering Learners’ Reading, Attitudinal Dexterities”
By P. Alavinia, M. Aslrasouli, and M. Rostami
[. . .] According to Wu (1998), sociocultural theory (SCT) is a theory of the development of
higher functions that emphasizes close association of culture, cognition, and development.
(See section 5.1.) “Unlike the psychological theories that view thinking and speaking as related
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Sociocultural Theory
Section 5.4
but independent processes, sociocultural theory views speaking and thinking as tightly interwoven” (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 47). [. . .] Vygotsky’s concept of SCT is, indeed, based
on mental development through mediation, which means that the “human mind is always
and everywhere mediated primarily by linguistically based communication” (Lantolf, 2002,
p. 104). Furthermore, as Lantolf (2004) maintains, SCT
is not a theory of the social or of the cultural aspects of human existence. . . .
It is, rather, . . . a theory of mind . . . that recognizes the central role that social
relationships and culturally constructed artifacts play in organizing uniquely
human forms of thinking. (cited in Lantolf & Thorne, 2006, p. 1)
One of the fundamental axioms within Vygotsky’s SCT, scaffolding (first mentioned in section 5.1) was originally introduced by Bruner (1966) and Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). As
Schweisfurth (2013) holds, scaffolding entails the “process of building from a lower starting
level towards the learner’s potential through the intervention of another,” and that “sustained
dialogue is central to the process of scaffolding, as is careful and understanding modelling by
the teacher” (p. 23). Berk (2002) defines scaffolding as
a changing quality of support over a teaching session in which adults adjust
the assistance they provide to fit the child’s current level of performance.
Direct instruction is offered when a task is new; less help is provided as competence increases. (p. 261)
[. . .] In the scaffolding process students are not passive receivers of information; rather, “they
are the active learners and therefore, their zone of proximal development (ZPD) should be
maximized through the help of their peers and teacher in an integrated activity” (Ellery, 2005,
p. 18). Clark and Graves (2005) considered scaffolding as an effective strategy and stated that
scaffolding is so effective because “it enables teacher to keep a task whole, while students
learn to understand and manage the parts, and presents the learner with just the right challenge” (Clark & Graves, 2005, p. 571).
Vygotsky (1978a) also underscored the role of interaction in the processes of language development. “He concluded that language develops primarily from social interaction. He argued
that in a supportive interactive environment, children are able to advance to higher level of
knowledge and performance” (cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 20). [. . .]
Mediation and Self-Regulation (SR)
In addition to scaffolding and ZPD, there are a number of other significant concepts that
underlie Vygotsky’s SCT model. Two of the most paramount notions in this regard are the
Vygotskian principles of mediation and self-regulation. Lying at the heart of Vygotsky’s SCT
is the concept of mediation, which is defined by Huong (2003) as “the mechanism through
which external, socio-cultural activities are transformed into internal, mental functioning.
Mediation is the instrument of cognitive change” (p. 33). Moreover, as Williams and Burden
(1997) declare, the notion of mediation underscores “the part played by other significant
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Section 5.4
Sociocultural Theory
people in the learners’ lives, who enhance their learning by selecting and shaping the learning
experiences presented to them” (p. 40).
The term self-regulation (SR) is another fundamental component of sociocultural theory.
In education, self-regulation refers to students’ ability to manage their own learning and
involves several aspects that lead students to appropriately respond to their environment
(Bronson, 2000). Zimmerman (1994) believes that “SR refers to learning that occurs when
individuals are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their
own learning process” (p. 3). Teachers may be interested in training the students who can
ultimately become independent, active, and self-regulated learners. Students’ active involvement and awareness develop their self-regulation. [. . .]
Source: Alavinia, P., Aslrasouli, M., & Rostami, M. (2014). Reappraisal of the pivotal role of social
interactionist perspectives in furthering learners’ reading, attitudinal dexterities. Procedia—
Social and Behavioral Sciences, 98 (Proceedings of the International Conference on Current
Trends in ELT), 153–160. Copyright © 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
As with other theories in this chapter, sociocultural theory (SCT) emphasizes that learners are
active and engaged in the learning process. SCT also maintains that learning is individualized
and based on social, physical, and cultural indicators from the learner’s environment. These
indicators help the learner create meaning. Vygotsky’s ZPD, as well as scaffolding, mediation
(reciprocal engagement), and self-regulation (SR) are concepts associated with SCT. (See Reinforcing Your Understanding: Sociocultural Theory in the Classroom for a demonstration of one
teacher’s take on using SCT to teach young learners.) Table 5.2 provides some example of these
concepts in action.
Table 5.2: Examples of SCT concepts in the real world
zone of proximal
development (ZPD)
When an individual is unfamiliar
with a concept or application, the
person is said to be working in his or
her zone of proximal development.
A new nurse who works with a mentor
until the job requirements are understood and practiced with efficiency
The effects of a person who is presenting new knowledge
self-regulation (SR)
An individual’s ability to self-monitor,
self-assess, and self-motivate.
It’s suggested that an individual
with this skill will have increased
It is easier to learn from someone who
is passionate and knowledgeable about
what he or she is teaching than it is to
learn material from a person who finds
the information boring or unimportant.
© Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
When an individual attaches new
knowledge to previous knowledge
To understand constructivism, it is
important to first understand the foundations of cognition, hence, more effectively bridging information processing
to perceptually constructed meaning.
When someone is finding it difficult
to understand a new concept, he or
she might ask questions, do increased
research about the subject, or practice
more often.
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Section 5.5
Problem-Based Learning
Reinforcing Your Understanding: Sociocultural Theory
in the Classroom
The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is an important consideration for one’s own
learning and when supporting other learners. The embedded video provided in your e-book
demonstrates how a grade-school teacher, Fe MacLean, uses aspects of ZPD and scaffolding
when she works with her class. In this example, she asks the students in the class to use their
personal experiences with sledding in the snow, an in-class demonstration using a ramp, and
unique narratives to help the students understand concepts related to motion. The use of
real-life experiences supports learning effectiveness by encouraging active engagement that
supports the scaffolding process.
5.5 Problem-Based Learning
Problem-based learning (PBL) is an approach to learning that encourages active engagement
by the learner and is an example of an authentic learning task that is promoted by constructivistbased theories (section 5.1). PBL encourages learners to be more effective problem solvers and
to have more control of their learning. A key component of this method is that learners must consciously apply what they already know to new concepts, building upon their knowledge to make
the most of their learning opportunities. Groupwork is also a critical component. For example,
chemistry students often participate in laboratory environments, in addition to the more traditional lectures and reading assignments, to learn the subject matter.
The excerpts included in this section are from Wiggins, Chiriac, Abbad, Pauli, and Worrell (2016).
The selection highlights core elements and goals of problem-based learning (PBL). Familiarity
with PBL can also reinforce your understanding of how constructivist-associated theories differ
from behaviorism and cognitivism. As you read, consider how you could apply the information
to your own (and others’) learning experiences.
Excerpts from “Ask Not Only ‘What Can Problem-Based Learning Do For Psychology?’
But ‘What Can Psychology Do For Problem-Based Learning?’ A Review of the
Relevance of Problem-Based Learning For Psychology Teaching and Research”
By S. Wiggins, E. H. Chiriac, G. L. Abbad, R. Pauli, and M. Worrell
Problem-based learning (PBL) is more than a pedagogical method (sometimes referred to
as a didactic approach). It is an orientation to teaching and learning falling under the broad
umbrella of student-centered, inquiry-based, or active learning approaches (Barrett, 2005;
Hmelo-Silver, 2004). PBL was pioneered in the 1960s in the Medical School at McMaster
University, Canada (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980) [. . .]. The fundamental principle of PBL is to
equip students with an investigative approach and to develop a greater sense of responsibility
for their learning. As the main processes of PBL are rooted in problem solving, self-directed
learning, and group interaction, this places psychology very much at the center of how PBL
works and how it may be understood as a teaching and learning approach. [. . .]
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Problem-Based Learning
Section 5.5
PBL places open-ended problems rather than defined curriculum content at the heart of
learning (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). A problem in PBL is an issue that
is investigated, discussed, and analyzed, which could take the form of a puzzle, a scenario,
or a case study (Barrett, Cashman, & Moore, 2011). As there are no fixed and final solutions
and numerous ways to solve these problems, students can study the same problem but learn
different things from their engagement with it. The problems are used to stimulate the learning of students who are normally required to work collaboratively in small groups in order
to identify what is “unknown” about the problem. Students will then conduct individual
research to obtain content information, before returning to the group to collectively devise an
appropriate response and a possible and plausible “solution” to the problem. As students are
required to actively take responsibility for what and how they learn, PBL is not simply another
method of teaching and relies on a very different philosophical approach to more tutor-centered pedagogies (Dolmans, Wolfhagen, van der Vleuten, & Wijnen, 2001; Savin-Baden, 2000,
2003). It also necessitates a fundamental revision of the roles of students and
teachers, respectively. The main goal
of PBL is to help students become selfdirected learners, who are able to seek
out, apply, and reflect critically on knowledge, especially as this applies to professional contexts (Hmelo-Silver & Barrows,
2006; Hung, Jonassen, & Liu, 2008). [. . .]
PBL is often imagined as a single general
education strategy, but in reality there are
a number of PBL models (Barrows, 1986),
SolisImages/iStock/Thinkstock as can be illustrated by the Aalborg (KolWhen students problem solve, either working
mos, Fink, & Krogh, 2006), Maastricht
together or individually, they are able to have con- seven-step (van Berkel, Scherpbier, Hillen,
trol in their learning, building upon past knowl& van der Vleuten, 2010), and open-ended
edge and using new skills when challenges arise.
PBL (Boud, 1985; see also Davidson &
This is an example of problem-based learning.
Howell Major, 2014) models, with the former including project-based PBL. These
models differ in terms of whether they require a tutor at every session (Maastricht) or not (Aalborg), whether they involve many short problems (Maastricht) or longer projects (Aalborg and
project-based PBL), and whether there are a series of steps to be followed (Maastricht) in terms
of guiding collaborative work in groups. There are also variations in how PBL is integrated into
curricula, ranging from PBL approaches underpinning a whole program of study through to
the use of PBL in a single module or session. Savin-Baden (2000), when outlining the different
models and modes of PBL, notes that the decision over which specific model to use will, in part,
be dependent on the discipline within which it will be used. In addition, those disciplines with
more specific and clearly defined core curricula may find it harder to adopt the open-ended
approaches to knowledge acquisition and transfer inherent in PBL. [. . .]
Source: Wiggins, S., Chiriac, E. H., Abbad, G. L., Pauli, R., & Worrell, M. (2016). Ask not only
“What can problem-based learning do for psychology?” but “What can psychology do for
problem-based learning?”: A review of the relevance of problem-based learning for psychology teaching and research. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(2), 136–154. Copyright
© 2016 SAGE Publications
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Summary & Resources
Problem-based learning (PBL), although an instructional strategy, offers information about
how to apply constructivist-based strategies to one’s own learning opportunities. PBL emphasizes learning environments that encourage learners to discover possible answers themselves,
rather than simply presenting the information to the learners. Finding answers using one’s own
construction of the problem is an ideal environment for learners. Strategies for applying PBL
include presenting learners with open-ended problems, encouraging questions, suggesting that
there are no fixed processes or solutions, and nurturing opportunities for group interactions. In
addition, PBL introduces variables that become applicable to our Chapter 6 discussion about
humanism and learning: self-regulation, self-directed learning, and authentic learning.
Chapter Summary
Summary & Resources
This chapter introduced you to theories that suggest learners construct their own knowledge through social, cultural, and physical indicators in the environment and that these
indicators are variables that should be not simply considered by the learner, but actively
attended to as well. Constructivism, social constructivism, situated cognition, and sociocultural theory (SCT) identify additional areas, each of which is unique to the respective theory’s models, to consider when evaluating how humans learn. These frameworks have both
supporters and critics among academic communities, scholars who either agree or disagree
with constructivist-based views. The notions that truth is but a perception, that knowledge is truth only when used in the suitable situation, and that knowledge is constructed
based on an individual’s social interactions are concepts that establish differentiation from
a purely cognitivist point of view. But as was mentioned at the beginning of the chapter,
constructivism, and the unique theories that are bound by similar constructs, though different, should not be seen as a framework that aims to disprove or replace cognitivist or
behaviorist perspectives. It does, however, offer constructs that consider different views of
how we learn. Constructivist-based perspectives encourage us to take into consideration the
diversity, and social implications, of our country, schools, and workforce when evaluating
learners’ needs. In addition, theories offer numerous practical applications to create a more
effective learning process, such as graphic organizers, scaffolding activities, and collaborations that take individuals’ zones of proximal development into consideration.
These frameworks, which focus more on individual-based learning, suggest that by being
attentive to the different ways that the same information might be perceived by different
individuals, you can be better equipped to help yourself and other learners to more successfully acquire knowledge. The following strategies can be used to help achieve this objective:
• Offer learners choices in activities.
• Facilitate rather than lecture.
• Allow learners to explore potential answers to questions.
• Encourage learners to work in groups.
• Offer opportunities for peer-to-peer instruction.
• Design activities that encourage learners to reflect on their outcomes.
• Allow learners to share their perceptions of the learning environment.
• Support learners’ alternative views.
• Allow learners to take part in creative projects and real-life simulations.
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Summary & Resources
Key Ideas
• Constructivism suggests that learners construct their own knowledge based on their
own perceptions of reality.
• Some learning theorists do not agree that constructivism is a valid theory, citing that
the theory is too subjective.
• Constructivism suggests applicable strategies for effective learning in educational
• Discovery learning is a process of using one’s own past experiences and knowledge
to discover new information.
• Social constructivism emphasizes that an individual’s interactions with others and
society influence the individual’s perceptions of reality, thus influencing his or her
• Situated cognition suggests that knowledge is embedded in and connected to the
situations in which learning occurs.
• Situated cognition encourages learners to be aware of how knowledge may be connected with the circumstances in which it is applied.
• Cognitive apprenticeship focuses on the skill needed and emphasizes the role of a
mentor to teach a novice in an authentic environment.
• Sociocultural theory (SCT) emphasizes the importance of being mindful of the association of culture, cognition, and development in association with one’s knowledge
• Sociocultural theory (SCT) views language as the key means by which to connect
meaning to learning.
• The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is an area of development in which a skill
or concept is just beyond the learner’s current level but can be attained with the
help of a more knowledgeable peer or mentor.
• Scaffolding, the process of efficiently building new knowledge upon prior knowledge, is influenced by an individual’s culture, social interactions, physical context,
and preexisting knowledge.
• Problem-based learning (PBL) is a learning strategy associated with constructivist-based theories that encourages group interactions, problem solving, and
Additional Resources
The theory of constructivism, and the numerous models based on its framework (e.g., social
constructivism, situated cognition, and sociocultural theory), can help you identify learning
strategies that will help you strengthen your own knowledge acquisition. An understanding
of the social, cultural, and physical contexts of the learning opportunity can also encourage
you to consider how you, and others, construct knowledge. Visit the following websites to
further your understanding of the topics and individuals that were introduced in this chapter. Some resources may also be accessible via your university library.
• StateUniversity.com, a history of constructivism: http://education.stateuniversity
• InternationalRelations.org, about constructivism in international relations:

Constructivism in International Relations

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Summary & Resources
• Hua Liu, C., & Matthews, R. (2005). Vygotsky’s philosophy: Constructivism
and its criticisms examined. International Education Journal, 6(3), 386–399.
• Jean Piaget Society, an organization for individuals interested in the construction
of human knowledge: http://www.piaget.org/index.html
Situated Cognition
• Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of
learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42. Retrieved from https://people.ucsc
.edu/~gwells/Files/Courses_Folder/ED 261 Papers/Situated Cognition.pdf
Problem-Based Learning
• Speaking of Teaching. (2001). Problem-based learning. Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, 11(1). Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin
Key Terms
authentic learning tasks Activities that
allow learners to discover meaningful
knowledge through exploration of relevant
real-world problems (e.g., problem-based
cognitive apprenticeship A strategy used
in learning environments where someone
who has mastered a skill teaches a novice,
gradually allowing the novice opportunities
to exercise the skill independently.
cooperative learning A strategy used in
learning environments where small groups
of learners work together on the activity or
task; also known as small-group learning.
dialectical constructivism A type of constructivism that emphasizes that the source
of knowledge is based on social interactions between learners and environments,
and that meaning is made through interactions with others. Also known as social
endogenous constructivism A type of
constructivism that emphasizes that an
individual’s knowledge develops by making meaning of experiences and resolving
discrepancies between new knowledge and
existing knowledge. Also known as cognitive
exogenous constructivism A type of constructivism that emphasizes that an individual’s mental structures reflect the environments that the individual experiences. Also
known as radical constructivism.
intersubjectivity Individuals’ shared
meanings about knowledge based on shared
cultures, interests, or contexts.
logical positivism Founded on the framework that problems should be answered
only through the means of logical or empirical analysis.
mediation The reconciliation of external,
sociocultural experiences into effective
knowledge acquisition.
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Summary & Resources
problem-based learning (PBL) A learning
strategy based on constructivist principles;
encourages learner engagement facilitated
by self-discovery and group interactions.
scaffolding A step-by-step process of
building upon a learner’s understanding by
providing guidance from a lower level to the
next level up, allowing the learner to reach
higher levels of knowledge acquisition.
self-directed learners Learners who guide
their own learning through investigation,
application, and critical reflection.
self-regulation (SR) The ability of a
learner to actively regulate one’s own learning through metacognitively, motivationally,
and behaviorally associated behaviors.
situated cognition Accentuates the importance of context, culture, and situation in the
knowledge acquisition process; emphasizes
that knowledge and the situation in which
learning occurs are inseparable.
sociocultural theory (SCT) Identified by
Lev Vygotsky, this theory describes learning as a social process in which the learner
is supported by a more knowledgeable
guide or mentor and gains skill and knowledge through the partnership, allowing the
individual to acquire the level of competence
required for independent work; emphasizes
the importance of society or culture in the
learning process.
zone of proximal development (ZPD) A
concept, suggested by Lev Vygotsky, that discriminates between what a learner can and
cannot do without guidance from a more
knowledgeable peer or mentor.
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Person-Centered Approaches
to Learning
Siri Stafford/DigitalVision/Thinkstock
Learning Objectives
After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
• Explain the roots of humanism and its current iteration.
• Describe humanism’s views about personal development.
• Summarize the principles of Waldorf education and Steiner pedagogy.
• Define experiential learning and explain how it is evaluated.
• Describe the different elements of the transformative learning processes.
• Compare and contrast extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
• Apply self-determination theory (SDT) to learning.
• Apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to learning psychology.
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Section 6.1
Have you ever:
• decided not to take on a new project because someone told you that you could not
accomplish such a task?
• felt unsatisfied with a task because you knew you were performing it to please
others instead of yourself?
• felt that you are not the person you want to be?
• been frustrated because a degree program emphasized book- rather than
experience-based learning?
• wondered about the meaning of life and your personal connection to it?
Theorists interested in person-centered psychology (also known as humanism) might ponder these types of questions. This chapter focuses on humanistic ideologies that have shaped
numerous domains in psychology, including learning. Humanism is far more philosophical
than previous theories, so it will be important to think critically about the pros and cons of
this approach.
This chapter will introduce you to frameworks
that suggest that holistic personal development
fortifies learning when applied to oneself or in a
learning atmosphere designed to teach specific
content (such as organizational training). Section 6.1 will consider the foundations of humanism from a historical perspective. The other sections will then explain how the approach can be
applied within learning contexts (section 6.2),
learning models (section 6.3), and motivation
learning theories (section 6.4). Although each
framework is unique, the crucial similarity is the
emphasis on self-discovery and the search for
self-actualization in learning.
Humanists focus on the whole person and
what he or she is experiencing or feeling
when considering how humans learn.
6.1 Humanism
As you learned in section i.5, humanism in the context of learning is an ideology that promotes the importance of the needs and motivations of the whole person, thus increasing an
individual’s learning through the development of multiple areas. However, humanistic ideas
did not just appear in the context of learning, nor are they solely based in educational values.
(Remember the discussion about situated cognition and the different associations with the
word humanism in section 5.3?) Humanism has a rich history, and its application to effective
learning is relevant when considering the variety of factors associated with how individuals
learn (Boutcher, 2006; Collini, 2008; Goulding, 2006; Guarino, 2008; Hankins, 2005).
There are many definitions of humanism, but in learning, humanism is derived from the
word humanitas. During the Renaissance in Europe (the early 14th through 17th centuries),
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Section 6.1
humanitas was an area of educational studies that focused on classical literature. Those who
studied this area were literature scholars whose focus included grammar, poetry, rhetoric,
history, and moral philosophy. Today, these fields are known as the humanities. The goal in
these fields is to develop the whole person using philosophical means, through the discovery
of self and the meaning of life. The humanities sought to inspire one to develop a higher level
of existence, or self-actualization.
Carl Rogers (1902–1987) is considered the revitalizer of humanism because of his personcentered therapy approach (Rogers, 1953). Historically, his theory of the self (Pescitelli, 1996;
Rogers, 1980) has been associated more with the psychology of personalities (Dagmar, 1996;
Ryckman, 1993), but it is also applicable to learning psychology because the theory addresses
psychological components that can affect learning effectiveness and accuracy. His personcentered approach was based primarily on how a person perceives oneself. The “self,” in this
case, is a central construct of his theory, suggesting that a healthy individual understands the
correspondence between one’s sense of who one is (self) and who one wants to be (ideal self)
(Rogers, 1953). His theory has also been described as humanistic, existential, and phenomenological (Dagmar, 1996), which is important to note as you consider outside resources that
discuss humanism.
Rogers’s concept of humanism emphasized one’s ability to achieve healthy
self-development and growth (Rogers,
1953). In the context of therapy, the
role of a therapist in fostering healthy
growth was also important. Through a
process Rogers called person-centered
therapy, the therapist should provide
empathy, sincerity, and positivity to
every client. In addition, Rogers suggested that every person is unique and
thus each person’s perceptions are
just as unique (Rogers, 1953; RyckShironosov/iStock/Thinkstock
man, 1993). This notion is similar to
Focusing on client-centered therapy, Carl Rogers
constructivist ideas because both sugtook a humanistic approach to understanding
gest that perceptions are designed by
learning. He was a proponent of a therapist
the individual and learning opportuproviding emotional support and positivity to the
nities should be person centered. But
client in an effort to foster growth.
Rogers’s notion also differs from constructivism because Rogers maintained the importance of the role of the facilitator as warm,
encouraging, and objective to encourage the positive development of “self.” The facilitator
should guide a learner to a higher place, a place of inner contentment and self-actualization.
Today, some academics and scholars suggest that any focus on or renewal of a development of
the whole person, emphasizing the importance of the learner, including his or her thoughts,
feelings, and emotions, is classified as a humanistic approach (Gage & Berliner, 1991; Lei,
2007; Maples, 1979). Hence, learning, based on the theoretical framework of humanism, is
“from the perspective of the human potential for growth” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 281). These points of view explain the use of the word humanism in more current
and modern learning philosophies that will be discussed in this chapter.
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Humanism and the Learning Context
Section 6.2
In discussions about learning, Rogers’s ideas about the importance of self helped shape ideas
about the effectiveness and personal ownership one has in the learning process through the
application of methods and motivational strategies that address a learner’s needs and perceived self. Humanists believe that more effective learning occurs when the learner is encouraged to have a positive self-image (also considered by some theorists as positive self-efficacy;
see Ryan & Deci, 2000). They also suggest that unconditional feelings of increased value and
respect within the learner improve his or her learning potential. For example, if an individual
is assigned to a group project and, as a team member, he feels that his input is of value and
that the team respects him for his ideas, this framework suggests that he would be more
inclined to increase his engagement in the assigned content, thus learning it with increased
However, Rogers noted that most people do not accept learning opportunities as unconditional, believing that to earn value, respect, and even love, one must satisfy the desires of others, rather than themselves (Rogers, 1953). This perception could increase the disassociation
a person may have between what he or she does and why he or she chooses to do it (perceived
self versus ideal self). Much as with situated cognition (see section 5.3), Rogers suggested
that the person then constructs the perceived knowledge to make it fit into his or her reality,
even skewing what is truth versus what is the perceived truth. This disassociation also creates an inner struggle that can be seen by persons who may try to acquire what they perceive
will be more acceptable to others, though it does not make them truly more knowledgeable,
happier, or fulfilled. For example, a student who believes that he or she has value only if he
or she gets straight As may perceive a B or C as a complete and utter failure, even if he or she
learned a great deal about the content covered in the course and would like to know more.
In this example, the student misses out on the self-reward of learning, growth, and personal
achievement, and subsequently his or her positive perception of self decreases.
The next section provides an example of a humanistic approach to educating children. Though
this example describes a specific setting, as you read, consider how the components could be
applied in other settings that would benefit from more effective learning, such as daycares,
sales careers, counseling, or career training.
6.2 Humanism and the Learning Context
We have considered many different ideas about how we learn, especially in regard to how knowledge and …
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