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"Constructivism" and cooperation between scientists and educators : A reply to Crowther

Thomas H. Illman, M.Sc.
Åbo Akademi University, Finland
Department of Teacher Education
e-mail: tillman@abo.fi

   "Constructivism" is a familiar word to most members of the science education community. However, in the last few years, it has become a highly controversial concept - strongly criticized by some, vigorously defended by others. The conflict over "constructivism" has by now also received some attention outside mathematics and science education journals (Morrison 1997). Crowther (1997) reacted to this criticism and urges scientists and science educators to "work together" rather than "wage war against each other". This author strives to explain why this is not an easy enterprise, and will in the final section put forward a proposal to stimulate further discussion.

    The difficulties in dealing with constructivism begin at the very attempt of presenting even an approximate definition of it :

"The situation has become so confusing that to be told that a particular individual is a 'constructivist' is to acquire no useful information whatsoever" (Phillips 1997, 85).

    A working definition of this fluid concept may be "mainstream contemporary science education" - a field which, according to some of its critics, today faces at least two fundamental problems. One is the questionable epistemology of two important versions of "constructivism", sometimes labeled "radical" and "social" (Osborne 1996). The other is the "distorted" and "confusing" use of experimental work as a primary teaching method (Hodson 1996). These two problems will be briefly elaborated below - using a science-related social issue, the nuclear power controversy, as an example.

"Constructivism" and epistemology

    Geelan (1997, 20) has introduced a two-dimensional scheme to tentatively organize the many forms of "constructivism". Firstly, it has an objectivist-relativist axis, which can be used to describe an author's stance on the philosophical controversy over the existence of an external, ontological reality. Secondly, it has a social-personal axis, along which the emphasis put on social interactions versus individual cognition can be expressed. This means that an accusation of knowledge relativism in some form of "constructivism" cannot be satisfactorily responded to with a mere reference to "social constructivism". That would be to conflate the two dimensions of "constructivism". The epistemological problems of social "constructivism", which make it an "unacceptable position even for the modest realist" were described by Osborne (1996, 60-62).

    Even from the "constructivists" that Geelan (p. 21) describes as "objectivist" he would expect a rejection of this tag for their epistemological and ontological perspectives. Geelan's "tag" does not mean that these "objectivist constructivists" would unambiguously propose anything like the "broad doctrine of objectivism" described by Nola (1997, 55-56). This doctrine includes both a belief in a human-independent world and in the existence of tentative methods for adjudicating between scientific hypotheses. With the exception of Ausubel (see section 5 below) it is difficult to find endorsements of such objectivism among advocates of any major brand of "constructivism".

    The point being made here is simple : For many natural scientists (as well as non-"constructivist" educators) objectivism is the very core of all scientific activities. This difference in the epistemological approach consequently is not likely to have promoted cooperation between, say, a physicist and a physics educationist. The average physics teacher is often left with mixed loyalties and little clarity of where to stand in the dispute.

    Another source of epistemological difficulties in the cooperation between scientists and educationists may be what critics of knowledge relativism sometimes complain about - the lack of consistency in some explanations of philosophical approaches. If discussions of what (if any) place "constructivism" can have in science education in the 21st century are to be fruitful, it is necessary to avoid making "strong and exciting but untenable claims which are then backed away from" (Phillips 1997, 85). Crowther (1997, section I) uses, among others, Watzawick's (1984) : definition of "constructivism" :

"Constructivism can be defined as that philosophical position which holds that any so-called reality is, in the most immediate and concrete sense, the mental construction of those who believe they have discovered and investigated it. In other words, what is supposedly found is an invention whose inventor is unaware of his act of invention and who considers it as something that exists independently of him; the invention then becomes the basis of his world view and actions."

    Now, this definition can be interpreted as anti-realist if one is to focus on words like "so-called reality", or the "invention" as "the [sole?] basis for world view and actions". It could also be interpreted as merely a reminder of the activity of the cognizing mind in any research work or learning, if we focus on the phrase "in the most immediate and concrete sense". Which (if any) of these meanings did Crowther aim at with this quote ?

    These "definitions" which can be read over and over again without yielding even an approximate understanding of the "defined" concept are an important obstacle to communication and cooperation between social and natural scientists. This became evident in the 1996 Sokal affair, when a physicist published a "parody" article in a journal, Social Text, where views of science similar to those of relativist "constructivists" in education had been advocated. At one point in the debate that followed Sokal (1997, line 106) complained that :

"When one analyzes these writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous, and which can be given two alternate readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true".

    Such ambiguity can result in a considerable amount of headache when attempting to interpret even a single sentence. The following is an example of how Sokal works to find out what a sociologist (Latour 1987) means :

"Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome -- Nature -- to explain how and why a controversy has been settled [Latour 1987, 99]"

"Note how Latour slips, without comment or argument, from ``Nature's representation'' in the first half of this sentence to ``Nature'' tout court in the second half. If we were to read ``Nature's representation'' in both halves, then we [would] have the truism that scientists' representations of Nature (that is, their theories) are arrived at by a social process, and that the course and outcome of that social process [cannot] be explained simply by its outcome. If, on the other hand, we take seriously ``Nature'' in the second half, linked as it is to the word ``outcome'', then we would have the claim that the external world is created by scientists' negotiations: a claim that is bizarre to say the least, given that the external world has been around for about 10 billion years longer than the human race .Finally, if we take seriously ``Nature'' in the second half but expunge the word ``outcome'' preceding it, then we would have either (a) the weak (and trivially true) claim that the course and outcome of a scientific controversy cannot be explained solely by the nature of the external world (obviously some social factors play a role, if only in determining which experiments are technologically feasible at a given time, not to mention other, more subtle social influences); or (b) the strong (and manifestly false) claim that the nature of the external world plays no role in constraining the course and outcome of a scientific controversy [Sokal's interpretational work]".

If "constructivists" can find a way to make it easier for an objectivist to understand which of several possible stances they advocate, the chances of cooperation would be increased by several orders of magnitude.

"Constructivism" and teaching practices

    In addition to the above philosophical problems, "constructivist" pedagogy has, according to its critics, done little to improve the standard of science education; instead it has persistently been "getting in the way of good teaching" (Matthews 1997, 13). It has focused on problems where students are to "construct" for themselves - preferably by experimental work - concepts that are difficult or impossible to investigate properly in a school laboratory. Hodson (1991, 176) writes that :

"Despite its often massive share of curriculum time, laboratory work often provides little of real educational value ... [Teachers] have been socialized by the powerful, myth-making rhetoric of the science teaching profession that sees hands-on practical work in small groups as the universal panacea - the route to all learning goals and the educational solution to all learning problems."

    Where other forms of work than experiments are allowed, Crowther (1997, section III) claims that, "It is important for the teacher to maintain a neutral stance ... and to not correct any "wrong" answers, but allowing the students to discuss them". Where is the necessary contradiction between allowing and encouraging free discussion on the one hand and conveying the accumulated knowledge of the scientific community on the other ? Is a science teacher allowed to inform his students that the Earth is approximately spherical though it appears flat when looked at through the classroom window ? (In a more recent work, Hodson (1996, 127) uses words like "wrong" and "misconception" to "emphasize [his] opposition to the relativism that [in his view] is a prominent feature of much contemporary writing dealing with constructivist approaches to teaching".)

    The above criticism of practical work and undirected discussions is largely independent of the particular concepts of science that are to be learned by the students, and does not call for abandoning the experimental work or cooperative learning per se, but rather demands new ways to use them in science classes. Without disrespect for those educators who have succeeded in making experimental work in some areas a meaningful and worthwhile part of school science, one can easily mention areas of science and technology where teaching the key concepts with school experiments of any kind is not feasible. And yet there are strong ethical reasons to take these issues seriously :

"An STS-approach to science teaching may make science more meaningful, in the sense of more connected to experience and everyday life, but here subjectivist and relativist epistemologies, such as constructivism, are even more of a danger to [our future]. It is vital to get to the truth of the matter about ozone depletion, viability levels for species, the effects of nuclear power generation, biodiversity and so on .... On these vital matters, the idea that truth is in principle unattainable, or that it is what we and our small research group agree upon, is disastrous. The former undermines hard work and research effort, the latter leads to comfortable ignorance and the confirmation of prejudice." (Matthews 1994, 171).

One of the issues mentioned, the nuclear power controversy will here be used as an example of what difficulties a "constructivist" teacher may encounter.

"Constructivism" and the nuclear power issue
"Many educationists would argue that the interactions of children with the real world provide the experiences from which 'sense' can be made of their surroundings, but this direct 'experiential' learning is impossible with radioactivity" (Boyes & Stanisstreet 1994, 196)     Although some experiments with radioactivity can be done in class, this is hardly the case when we move to the central arguments of the nuclear power debate, which include the possible connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the long-term management of nuclear waste, and the risk for major accidents (MacKerron 1992). It may be possible to measure the half-life of a nuclide in the school lab - but this has little relevance for the controversy over the use of nuclear power since a proponent and an opponent of this form of energy can agree on all results and methods in such an experiment, and still disagree wildly on whether or not more nuclear power stations should be built. Teaching a science-related social issue must include dealing with the aspects where people truly "disagree on the status and resolution of the issue" (Ramsey 1993, 252).

    These arguments involve numerous scientific and technological concepts that cannot be elaborated in detail here; a few examples will suffice to support the point that students cannot be expected to construct knowledge of this issue based on practical work or undirected discussions.

    Of the arguments listed by MacKerron (1992), two seem especially serious and decisive for the question of whether or not nuclear power can be among the energy sources that may replace fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas : 1. We have the "Chernobyl-argument" - is it environmentally acceptable to use a form of technology that is known to have caused a major disaster in 1986, albeit that the exact extent of the damages are debated ? 2. We also have the waste problem - is it acceptable to deposit plutonium in the ground with the intention to leave it there without supervision, calculating that this procedure will not pose a threat to the lives and health of yet unborn generations ? In order to discuss these arguments one must have some awareness of the following :

    The relevance of the Chernobyl accident for energy choices today must be evaluated with some consideration of the similarities and differences between the graphite-moderated Russian reactors and water-moderated modern fission reactors. The latter have (due to a "negative void coefficient") radically different safety properties (Glasstone & Sesonske 1981, 267).

    The conventional plans for nuclear waste disposal in the bedrock may seem questionable at first glance, but must be compared with the movements (or lack thereof) of radionuclides from the natural fission reactor in Oklo, West Africa (Leachman & Bishop 1978).

    We cannot build a nuclear reactor in the classroom, a waste disposal in the back yard or even expect that students learn about the main arguments put forward by proponents and opponents of nuclear power unless the teacher aims at some very "specific content related outcomes" (Crowther 1997, part IV). If we want democratic decisions on the future of nuclear power to be made by scientifically literate citizens who not only consider the possible economic interests of the debating parties, but also what scientific arguments they can produce to support their case, it is necessary to teach about concepts such as those mentioned - even if it means occasionally using some good old "teacher-centered" knowledge transmission.

"Constructivism" and knowledge transmission : A new look at Ausubel

    A respect for the activity of the learner's mind, and an interest in what he/she already knows has been a common denominator for most "constructivists". This "cognitive" view of learning is found as early as in Ausubel's (1968) theory of meaningful reception learning. It is a feature of "constructivism" that is endorsed even by its critics, and few natural scientists would have any problem with the opening sentence in Crowther's (1997, section I) "definition" of "constructivism" :

"Basically defined, constructivism means that as we experience something new we internalize it through our past experiences or knowledge constructs we have previously established".

    But from this "trivial constructivism" does not necessarily follow any of the (possibly) radical philosophical claims that often accompany it, nor that the teacher could not or should not use transmission of knowledge as "ready-made concepts, classifications and propositions" (Ausubel 1968,  p.23). By anchoring new knowledge in the student's preconceptions,

"Science education can play a role in helping the current generation of students understand the importance of collective global environmental problems that all students should be aware of and understand in spite of their personal experiences with the problems (French, 1994)."

    Ausubel is presumably well-known to "constructivists", though it is not clear how many of those would agree with his reaction to the Kuhnian view of knowledge introduced by a co-author of the second edition of Ausubel's most well-known work :

"One way of expressing a more relativistic brand of a belief that 'absolute', truths do in fact exist in nature is to say that the accretion of more valid knowledge depends on approaching through progressively closer revisions and approximations necessitated by new advances in theory and research, but never actually reaching 'final' truth. This is the epistemological position taken by the senior author."(Ausubel, Novak & Hanesian 1978, p. 525)

A concluding proposal

    The varieties of "constructivism" exhibit more "negative identities" (Bickhard 1997, 29) than intelligible positive proposals. Such proposals are needed as a basis for fruitful discussion and eventually cooperation between "constructivists" and mainstream natural scientists (or non-"constructivist" educators). Admittedly, most critics of "constructivism" have also failed to provide positive pedagogical ideas. One such is hereby put forward to stimulate further discussion :

Knowledge transmission should be viewed as *one* legitimate and recommendable type of science education in the 21 st century.

     The basis of the proposal is a) "the broad doctrine of objectivism" (Nola 1997, 55-56) which may have no necessary connection to any learning theory, b) Ausubel's cognitive learning theory which is, however, compatible with objectivism and c) an ethical concern for the future of life on this planet. "Constructivists" are invited to clarify their position towards this proposal - perhaps we can learn something about their fundamental referent(s) in the process. Among those who accept it (and perhaps will add that, in this sense, they never were against it), the discourse can then proceed to questions of how knowledge transmission through meaningful reception learning can support and be supported by other forms of learning.


    Ausubel, D.P. (1968). Educational Psychology. A Cognitive View. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Ausubel, D.P. , Novak, J.D., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational Psychology. A Cognitive View (second edition). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Bickhard, M.H. (1997). Constructivisms and relativisms : A shoppers guide. Science & Education, 6, 29-42.

    Boyes, E., & Stanisstreet, M. (1994). Children's ideas about radioactivity and radiation: sources, mode of travel, uses and dangers. Research in Science and Technology Education, 12(2), 145-160.

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    Hodson, D. (1996). Laboratory work as a scientific method : three decades of confusion and distortion. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 28, 115-135.

    Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

    Leachman, R.B. & Bishop, W.P. (1978).  Relevance of natural retention experience to nuclear waste management. In Les reacteurs de fission naturels. Natural fission reactors, IAEA, Vienna.

    MacKerron, G. (1992). Arguments against nuclear power. Physics Education, 27(4), 206-209.

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    Sokal, A. (1997). What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove. Article to appear in A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science. Noretta Koertge (Ed.) (Oxford University Press) [Online]. Available : http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/noretta.html [1998, February 16]

    Solomon, J. (1994). The rise and fall of constructivism. Studies in Science Education, 23, 1-19.

    Watzawick, P. (1984). The invented reality. New York: W.W. Norton.

About the author...
Thomas Illman was born 1968, achieved a M.Sc. in physics at Åbo Akademi University/ Department of Physics in 1994 and is now a graduate student of
physics education at its Department of Teacher Education. He has worked as a junior high school teacher in science and mathematics, and is currently
temporary lecturer in physics and chemistry education at the DTE.

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