Constructivists typically emphasize the importance of active construction of knowledge among children. Conceptualization of the child as passively responding to others is rejected. Rather, children are seen as inherently active, self regulating learners who construct knowledge in developmentally appropriate ways while interacting with a perceived world (Harris & Graham, 1994).
There has been much discussion about constructivism over the last few decades and several difficulties arise when reviewing this topic. The basic premise is straight forward, and one can find constructivist elements in the ideas of people who would not have considered themselves constructivist. We can therefore trace constructivist theories far back in history, long before the term constructivism was even coined. Constructivism has also infiltrated several academic fields including psychology, philosophy, sociology and education. For the purpose of this review, I have narrowed my focus on constructivism in education. Finally, even though academics mostly agree on the main points, they cannot all agree on the finer points of constructivism. This has lead to a myriad of different streams of constructivist theories. Examples include cognitive/individual/endogenous constructivism, social/socio-cultural/socio-historical constructivism, radical constructivism, epistemological constructivism, ontological constructivism, critical constructivism and human constructivism to name a few. The first two streams (cognitive and social constructivism) have dominated the education and special education debate. When discussing constructivism in special education, the majority of the critiques analyze the problem from a holistic constructivist viewpoint. Holism can be seen as an amalgamation of both cognitive and social constructivism (Harris & Graham, 1994). For this reason, I have further narrowed my focus on these two streams of thought. The second half of my review will consider how constructivism can benefit or impede special education. Can constructivist principles be applied to a special needs class, or are learners with lower cognitive function better served with a traditional direct instruction approach? Throughout this review, I shall be applying the constructivist practices discussed to my own professional context, and arguing the usefulness of each practice. I shall begin my review with a background into constructivism.
When looking into constructivism’s pre-history, one can see the beginnings of the theory in Idealism. Plato believed that reality can only exist as ideas and ideals (Oxford, 1997). However, the word ‘constructivist’ was first coined by Giambattista Vico in the 18th century. In 1710, Vico wrote a treatise that stated that the “epistemic agents cannot know anything except the cognitive structures they have put together” (Yager, 2000, p. 44). We therefore “rationally know only what we ourselves have made” (von Glaserfeld, 1995, p. 6). John Dewey was a philosopher and an educator who believed that “knowing is not done by an outside spectator but is instead constructed by a participant, with society providing a reference point or theory for making sense of the experience” (Oxford, 1997, p.). He added the idea of knowledge being socially constructed. In the 20th century, many of Kant’s ideas have been labeled constructivist. His thoughts mirror that of Vico when he claims that “what we call knowledge is necessarily determined to a large extent, of not altogether, by the knower’s ways of perceiving and conceiving “ (Von Glaserveld, 1995, p. 55).
But though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience. For it may well be that even our empirical knowledge is made up of what we receive through impressions and of what our own faculty of knowledge...supplies from itself. If our faculty of knowledge makes any such additions, it may be that we...
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