What Do Students “Construct” According to Constructivism in Science Education?

Abstract

This paper aims at shedding light on what students can “construct” when they learn science and how this construction process may be supported. Constructivism is a pluralist theory of science education. As a consequence, I support, there are several points of view concerning this construction process. Firstly, I stress that constructivism is rooted in two fields, psychology of cognitive development and epistemology, which leads to two ways of describing the construction process: either as a process of enrichment and/or reorganization of the cognitive structures at the mental level, or as a process of building or development of models or theories at the symbolic level. Secondly, I argue that the usual distinction between “personal constructivism” (PC) and “social constructivism” (SC) originates in a difference of model of reference: the one of PC is Piaget’s description of “spontaneous” concepts, assumed to be constructed by students on their own when interacting with their material environment, the one of SC is Vygotsky’s description of scientific concepts, assumed to be introduced by the teacher by means of verbal communication. Thirdly, I support the idea that, within SC, there are in fact two trends: one, in line with Piaget’s work, demonstrates how cooperation among students affects the development of each individual’s cognitive structures; the other, in line with Vygotsky’s work, claims that students can understand and master new models only if they are introduced to the scientific culture by their teacher. Fourthly, I draw attention to the process of “problem construction” identified by some French authors. Finally, I advocate for an integrated approach in science education, taking into account all the facets of science learning and teaching mentioned above and emphasizing their differences as well as their interrelations. Some suggestions intended to improve the efficiency of science teaching are made.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Namely, “application of the knowledge with feedback” and “reflection on learning”.

  2. 2.

    Driver and Easley (1978) introduced the expression “alternative framework” to refer to these alternative conceptions. In the 1980s, this expression has been used by several authors working on the students’ initial conceptions (e.g., Northfield and Gunstone 1983; Watts 1983). It has been almost abandoned thereafter.

  3. 3.

    There are many “variants” or “forms” of constructivism, as several authors have pointed out (e.g., Good 1993; Jenkins 2000; Matthews 2000; Nola 1997). This can lead to the view that constructivism is only a label referring to a confused set of claims. This is not the point of view supported in this paper. Constructivism is assumed to be a “pluralist” theory of science education insofar as the different variants of constructivism can be considered as complementary (see below).

  4. 4.

    To a large extent, Dewey’s influence on constructivism in science education is indirect and tacit. Some authors make explicit reference to him and put his philosophy at the core of their variants of constructivism, which have to be distinguished from those discussed in this paper (see, e.g., Garrison 1997; Kruckeberg 2006).

  5. 5.

    Let us put aside the question of the possibility or not of reducing these mental representations to neural states of the brain.

  6. 6.

    To be more complete, a concept can be a mental representation of an object (e.g., a table), a property (e.g., red), an event (e.g., birth), or a process (e.g., growth).

  7. 7.

    This kind of instruction is in agreement with the more general view according to which support should be offered to students only when they need it (see, e.g., Tobias 2009). It differs from a “minimally guided instruction”, and insofar, the question of whether it can be considered as a “constructivist” approach can be debated (for opposing views, see, e.g., Kirschner et al. 2006; Schmidt et al. 2007).

  8. 8.

    This kind of constructivism is sometimes reduced to “radical constructivism” (Osborne 1996; Staver 1998). It is also sometimes presented as being in line with Kelly (Solomon 1994; Geelan 1997).

  9. 9.

    In his comment on Vygotsky’s work, Piaget (1997 [1962]) maintained that he too had conducted studies on scientific concepts. However, his examples of alleged “scientific concepts” (number, physical quantity, velocity, time, space, etc.) are closer to what Vygotsky identified as “spontaneous concepts”. In fact, Piaget did not study the development of scientific concepts like energy or the intensity of electrical current, which are much less likely to be constructed by children on their own.

  10. 10.

    A possible objection here is that teachers are seldom scientists and hence sufficiently skilled to ensure this enculturation. If possible, this enculturation should be carried out with the help of a scientist or an engineer.

  11. 11.

    Are these structures of cooperation distributed in the minds of the individuals interacting with each other, or are they somewhere outside these minds? Piaget does not specify this point.

  12. 12.

    Indeed, the authors write that “the challenge lies in helping learners to appropriate these models (i.e., ‘models of conventional science’) for themselves, to appreciate their domains of applicability and, within such domains, to be able to use them” (p. 7) and “individuals have to make personal sense of newly introduced ways of viewing the world” (p. 11).

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Bächtold, M. What Do Students “Construct” According to Constructivism in Science Education?. Res Sci Educ 43, 2477–2496 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-013-9369-7

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Keywords

  • Science Learning
  • Science Teaching
  • Personal Constructivism
  • Social Constructivism
  • Cooperation
  • Enculturation
  • Problem construction