Radical constructivism

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Radical constructivism refers to both a type of learning theory and a pedagogical model.

See the discussion in discovery learning for a discussion of a radical constructivism educational approach.

Knowledge and learning theory

Radical constructivism adds a second principle to trivial constructivism (von Glasersfeld, 1990) :Coming to know is a process of dynamic adaptation towards viable interpretations of experience. The knower does not necessarily construct knowledge of a "real" world. Knowledge is therefore is result of a self-organized cognitive process.

We do all create our own realities. Radical constructivism does not deny an objective reality, but simply states that we have no way of knowing what that reality might be. Mental constructs, constructed from past experience, help to impose order on one's flow of continuing experience. However, when they fail to work, because of external or internal constraints, thus causing a problem, the constructs change to try and accommodate the new experience.

Glasersfeld (1984:13) conceptual analysis tries to show “[...] on the one hand, that a consciousness, no matter how it might be constituted, can “know” repetitions, invariances, and regularities only as the result of a comparison; on the other hand, it shows that there must always be a decision preceding the comparison proper, whether the two experiences that are to be compared should be considered as occurrences of one and the same or of two separate objects. These decisions determine what is to be categorized as “existing” unitary objects and what as relationships between them. Through these determinations, the experiencing consciousness creates structure in the flow of its experience. And that structure is what conscious cognitive organisms experience as “reality” – and since that reality is created almost entirely without the experiencer’s awareness of his or her creative activity, it comes to appear as given by an independently “existing” world.”

Within the constraints that limit our construction there is room for an infinity of alternatives. "Truth" in traditional epistemologies is replaced by "viability", bounded by social and physical constraints. The large diversity of flourishing public opinions in today's society on nearly every conceivable topic is evidence that a range of viable constructs are possible to allow survival and growth in the world.

From a radical constructivist perspective, communication need not involve identically shared meanings between participants. It is sufficient for their meanings to be compatible (Hardy and Taylor, 1997). If neither of the parties does anything completely unexpected to the other, then their illusions of identically shared meaning are maintained (von Glasersfeld, 1990).

In education

Hardy and Taylor (1997) critize typical constructivist designs as not being radical enough, i.e. as not considering knowledge as something that is constructed: “What seems to be common amongst these 'progressive' educational approaches is a purported concern for enablingstudents to 'construct' their own knowledge. However, the issue of the status of students’ constructed knowledge, which is of central concern to the relativist epistemology of radical constructivism, is curiously silent. It is this silence that allows the tradition of objectivism to attach the status of infallibility to knowledge that students ‘construct’ in science and mathematics classrooms.” and on page (11): “For the most part, ‘validity claims’ (or standards of truth and rightness) associated with instrumental and strategic actions are legitimated by the authority vested in the teacher by the institution.”

The authors (p.10) then state “As it is currently articulated, radical constructivism values explicitly constructive processes that resolve cognitive perturbations aroused by a failure to attain a desired goal state of meaning making or problem solving. [...] In the mathematics or science classroom, instrumental and strategic actions give rise to an attitude in which the objects of pedagogical interest are the seemingly independent mathematical or scientific laws and theories that are believed to mirror Nature.”

The emphasis in radical constructivism focuses on the individual learner as a constructor. Neither trivial nor radical constructivism look closely at the extent to which the human environment affects learning: it is regarded as part of the total environment. However, more recent theory (e.g. Hardy & Taylor, 1997) do stress the role of socio-cultural context, e.g. they relate Glaserfeld's theory to Habermas' theory of communicative action.

For other forms of social constructivism, see: social, cultural and critical.

(Back to constructivism)



  • Von Glasersfeld, E. (1990) An Introduction to Radical Constructivism, In: Watzlawick, P. (ed.) (1984) The invented reality. New York: Norton, pp. 17–40. English translation of: Glasersfeld, E. (1981) Einführung in den Radikalen Konstruktivismus. In: Watzlawick, P. (ed.) Die Erfundene Wirklichkeit, Munich: Piper, pp. 16–38. Retrieved from http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/EvG/papers/070.1.pdf
  • Von Glasersfeld, E. (1990) An exposition of constructivism: Why some like it radical. In R.B. Davis, C.A. Maher and N. Noddings (Eds), Constructivist views on the teaching and learning of mathematics (pp 19-29). Reston, Virginia: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.