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Authenticity and Constructivism in Education


This paper examines the concept of authenticity and its relevance in education, from a philosophical perspective. Under the heading of educational authenticity (EA), I critique Fred Newmann’s views on authentic pedagogy and intellectual work. I argue against the notion that authentic engagement is usefully analyzed in terms of a relationship between school work and: “real” work. I also seek to clarify the increasingly problematic concept of constructivism, arguing that there are two distinct constructivist theses, only one of which deserves serious attention. I explain that the correspondence view of authenticity pays insufficient attention to the reality that the presence of “real world” connections does not guarantee that teaching and learning will be truly authentic. As a bridge to a philosophically acceptable understanding of authenticity, I reflect on John Dewey, who famously strove to base his views on education on the experience of the child, while rejecting that such experience requires validation from the “real” world. And Jean Jacques Rousseau offers several clues as to how the search for an authentic self might proceed beyond the Romanticist vision of an inner essence. These include the idea of the self as constructed inter-subjectively, which I capture by the term “one among others” and which, in turn, reveals persons as dialogically engaged in working out who they are and what they stand for (an idea found in the work of Charles Taylor). There is a clear affinity here with the imperative proposed by Newmann. I embrace the idea that the cultivation of dialogue should be a key priority in classrooms, because dialogue drives each individual to seek meaning in the context of seeing her/himself as one among others. I highlight the role of the classroom community of inquiry as an environment which has the dual function of cultivating disciplined inquiry and facilitating the kind of personal development that can, most properly, be termed “authentic”.

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  1. 1.

    I have constructed this classification (the “Three Cs”) in describing the importance of concepts in our thinking. See Splitter (2000, 2003).

  2. 2.

    Petraglia postulates that the focus on authenticity in education can be linked to the history of the United States as a modern democracy. Petraglia (1998), 1ff.

  3. 3.

    Authentic has both Latin (authenticus) and Greek (authentikos) roots. A brief perusal of dictionary and thesaurus sources reveals several connected etymological strands, including not counterfeit or copied, of verifiable origin or authorship, and—interestingly—positing oneself, setting oneself as a thesis (see Ferrara 1998, p. 15). This last idea shifts the object of authenticity to persons. It will reappear below in the views of Rousseau.

  4. 4.

    Newmann’s writing, while somewhat dated, has been enormously influential in curriculum and assessment development over the past few years. Several state governments in Australia, for example, have incorporated his work on authentic education in current curriculum and policy initiatives.

  5. 5.

    I am not presuming that the characterization of social constructionism offered here is the only one that might be put forward. My target is any version of constructionism that abandons a commitment to some kind of objective reality.

  6. 6.

    These terms come from Whitehead (1929) and Paul (1993). Splitter and Sharp (1995) contains a more detailed discussion than can be offered here.

  7. 7.

    Petraglia labels this phenomenon the problem of “preauthentication”. 1998, p. 98.

  8. 8.

    These recordings were made and analyzed as follow-up studies to the Third International Maths and Science Study (“TIMSS”). See Stigler et al. (1999).

  9. 9.

    Inquiry-based teaching is not context-free; providing appropriate contexts is, by and large, the job of the teacher. What the Japanese students then did with such contexts and the problems they uncovered, still warrant being described as authentic inquiry.

  10. 10.

    Dewey, in Kantian mode, refers to the outcomes (objectives) of inquiry as objects, even though they were, at some earlier point, the subject-matter of inquiry (Dewey 1938b, p. 119). He traces the educational practice of referring to objects of knowledge as subject-matter to the Greeks (Dewey 1938b, p. 84).

  11. 11.

    At several points in his 1938b treatise, Dewey acknowledges his debt to C. S. Peirce and the latter’s focus on inquiry as fallibilistic and the rules of thought as non-psychological. See, for example, 9n, 40.

  12. 12.

    Guignon (2004) provides an excellent philosophical treatment of authenticity from an historical perspective. See also Nehamas (1999).

  13. 13.

    An idea which, as Appiah (2005), p. 15, points out, is also in J. S. Mill.

  14. 14.

    While the ideal of reconstructing social interactions that preserve individual freedom and a sense of self (authenticity) is a recurring theme in Rousseau’s political writings, and one which resonates with the major argument of this paper, Emile, his classic educational treatise, contains important elements which are less easy to swallow—particularly his insistence that young children should be guided by feeling rather than reason, and in isolation from other children rather than in community with them, not to mention his skewed ideas about gender relations.

  15. 15.

    Guignon (2004), Chapters 5–7, offers a convenient summary of the relevant views of these writers.

  16. 16.

    The thesis which places dialogue at the center of the struggle for authenticity may be viewed in conceptual terms, as an elaboration of what being a person amounts to. In the manner of a Kantian “transcendental deduction”, we begin with the relatively modest premise of our own subjectivity—and, hence, an intuitive sense of authenticity as “being true to oneself”, “being the best I can be”, etc.—and demonstrate that this premise makes sense only if certain other things are also accepted: that each of us must see him/her self as “one among others”, that we must be members of a dialogical community whose members value both one another and their capacity to reason together, that our growth and development in this community (or communities) goes hand-in-hand with my own growth and development, and so on.

  17. 17.

    I am thinking of the idea of the inquiring community as understood and manifested in the Philosophy for Children project, albeit extended to embrace all disciplines and content areas. The community of inquiry is the paradigm of an environment in which each participant exists as “one among others”. It is bigger than any one of its members—an important consideration for children who may otherwise be tempted to develop an inflated sense of themselves or one another—yet it is no bigger than the sum of its members, i.e. unlike other collectives such as families, communes, cults, tribes, cultures, gangs, cliques, even nations, the community of inquiry bears no extrinsic allegiances and loyalties; just those (which, one hopes, would include such values and commitments as striving for truth and honesty, etc.) that are defined, constructed and—if necessary, reconstructed—by its members.


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Correspondence to Laurance J. Splitter.

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Splitter, L.J. Authenticity and Constructivism in Education. Stud Philos Educ 28, 135–151 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-008-9105-3

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  • Authenticity
  • Educational authenticity
  • Dewey
  • Newmann
  • Rousseau
  • Taylor
  • Constructivism
  • Meaning
  • Self among others
  • Community of inquiry