Social Constructivism in the ‘adult world’

Constructivism has been around for a long time, with the main contributors to this theory being Kant, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. There is a wonderful ‘constructivist thinking timeline’ linked below which explores all of the various contributors, both large and small, to this pedagogical understanding of learning.

According to Piaget (Piaget 1936), intellectual development is seen as progressive adaptation of individual’s cognitive schemes to the physical environment and on the internalisation of a persons actions on objects in the world (Driver et. al. 1994). So learning exists within the mind, and is dependent on the mind’s previous experience or ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll et. al. 1992) – or schema. This is a personal (cognitive) constructivist view, and is distinctive in that it espouses the final responsibility of learning to the learner – teachers merely promote opportunities and support for learning.

In opposition to this, Vygotsky (Vygotsky 1962)’s social constructivist view of learning sees the role of a teacher to provide physical experiences, peer discussion and to promote thought and reflection of the learner, ‘requesting argument and evidence in support of assertions’ (Driver et. al. 1994). Learning is social and does not occur without peer interaction or assistance from the ‘more experienced other’.

In learning about these educational theories I couldn’t help but reflect on my previous experience as a professional in a scientific discipline (Geoscience). It is often the job of a ‘more experienced other’ to enculture or ‘apprenticeship’ learners into scientific practices. Rarely does the ‘teacher’ in this situation take the perspective of developing the learner, taking the time to understand the learners schemas and challenging or promoting reflection of those schemas in response to new information.

In her TED Talk, ‘Education Re-Imagined Through Constructivism’, Michelle Thompson asks us to imagine what it would be like if work or education was ‘like kindergarten everyday’. In kindergarten, the focus is on the individual – understanding what they need matters. The experiences of the individual is used to construct the knowledge of the group. Learning in the workplace should be facilitated through experience and conversation and shared social experience. There are many useful learnings for management and organisation in educational theory!

In the 2019 paper, ‘Nurturing nature: How brain development is inherently social and emotional, and what this means for education’, Immordino-Yang paints a beautiful picture of the developing brain:

The developmental sculpting of the brain’s networks through learning is akin to the process of growing a botanical garden. When given adequate opportunity, plants naturally grow through various developmentally appropriate phases, such as seed germination and cycles of budding and flowering. However, the particular characteristics of a garden reflect the age and types of the plants and a combination of geography, climate, soil quality, care, cultural context (such as preferences for rock gardens vs. wildflowers) and the gardener’s own choices. In this way, the local conditions, the gardener’s skills and taste, the patterns of use, and time all shape”

She goes on to describe a startling discovery of the Human Genome Project: that humans have far fewer genes than had been expected, that our ‘intellectual potential appears to derive partly from the evolutionary loss of genetic information’ (Immordino-Yang 2019). It is this information deficit that makes social learning or how our nature is nurtured, so important.

What’s growing in your mind-garden?

An approach to teaching which supports the constructivist theory of learning or thinking is the conceptual change model, often referred to as the 5 E’s teaching model or inquiry-based teaching (Dawson, V et. al. 2019), described below:

  1. Engage – probe student ideas (representations), understand their ideas/misconceptions/alternative conceptions.
  2. Explore – activities to explore and challenge ideas, gather evidence.
  3. Explain – bring ideas together (teacher-facilitated discussion) and introduce scientific literacy.
  4. Elaborate – trial ideas in new situations to test understanding.
  5. Evaluate – review and reflect on new understandings.

If we relate back to the workplace, the ‘manager’ or ‘boss’ is the teacher, who’s role is to stimulate curiosity, challenge ideas and provide resources. Read: the teacher is NOT the expert. ‘Providing resources’ includes time for research, budget for materials, etc. and a platform for sharing (e.g. small group discussions, report writing, model creation).

The emphasis of this teaching approach is on promoting genuine curiosity, wonder and questioning. It also places importance on the recognition of people as individuals, the active construction of understanding through experience within a shared learning environment and communication between peers.

No-one would argue that workplaces don’t need a little more of that!


Dawson, V, Venville, G and Donovan, J 2019, ‘The Art of Teaching Science’, Allen and Unwin, 3rd Edition.

Driver, R, Asoko, H, Leach, J, Mortimer, E and Scott, P 1994, ‘Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom’, Educational Researcher, vol. 23 (7), pp. 5-12.

Moll, L (2009), ‘Funds of knowledge for teaching: using a qualitative to connect homes and classrooms’, Theory into Practice, vol. 31 (2), pp. 132-141.

Piaget, J 1936, ‘Origins of Intelligence in the Child’, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1962, ‘Thought and Language’, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L and Krone, C 2019, ‘Nurturing Nature: How Brain Development Is Inherently Social and Emotional, and What This Means for Education’, Educational Psychologist, vol. 54 (3).

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