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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Namely, “application of the knowledge with feedback” and “reflection on learning”.
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.
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).
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).
Let us put aside the question of the possibility or not of reducing these mental representations to neural states of the brain.
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).
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).
In his comment on Vygotsky’s work, Piaget (1997 ) 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.
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.
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.
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).
Australian Academy of Science. (2005). Primary connections: plants in action. Canberra: Australian Academy of Science.
Bachelard, G. (1999 ). Le nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Bachelard, G. (2004 ). La formation de l’esprit scientifique: contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance. Paris: Vrin.
Bachelard, G. (1994 ). Le rationalisme appliqué. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Bächtold, M. (2012). Les fondements constructivistes de l’enseignement des sciences basé sur l’investigation. Tréma, 38, 7–39.
Baviskar, S., Hartle, T., & Whitney, T. (2009). Essential criteria to characterize constructivist teaching: derived from a review of the literature and applied to five constructivist-teaching method articles. International Journal of Science Education, 31(4), 541–550.
Brousseau, G. (1998 [1970–1990]). Théorie des situations didactiques. Grenoble: La pensée sauvage.
Carey, S. (2009). The origin of concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chin, C., & Chia, L.-G. (2004). Problem-based learning: using students’ questions to drive knowledge construction. Science Education, 88, 707–727.
DiSessa, A., & Sherin, B. (1998). What changes in conceptual change? International Journal of Science Education, 20(10), 1155–1191.
Doise, W., & Mugny, G. (1981). Le développement social de l’intelligence. Paris: Interéditions.
Doise, W., Mugny, G., & Perret-Clermont, A. (1975). Social interaction and the development of cognitive operation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 5, 367–383.
Driver, R., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Mortimer, E., & Scott, P. (1994). Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 5–12.
Driver, R., & Easley, J. (1978). Pupils and paradigms: a review of literature related to concept development in adolescent science students. Studies in Science Education, 5, 61–84.
Driver, R., Guesne, E., & Tiberghien, A. (Eds.). (1985). Children’s ideas in science. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Driver, R., & Oldham, V. (1986). A constructivist approach to curriculum development in Science. Studies in Science Education, 13, 105–122.
Duit, R. (1995). The constructivist view: a fashionable and fruitful paradigm for science education. In L. Steffe & J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in education (pp. 271–285). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Duit, R. (2003). Conceptual change: a powerful framework for improving science teaching and learning. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 671–688.
Dumas-Carré, A., & Goffard, M. (1997). Rénover les activités de résolution de problèmes en physique: concepts et demarches. Paris: Armand Colin.
Fabre, M., & Orange, C. (1997). Construction des problèmes et franchissements d’obstacles. Aster, 24, 37–57.
Fosnot, C., & Perry, R. (2005). Constructivism: a psychological theory of learning. In C. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 8–38). New York and London: Teachers College Press.
Gallagher, S., Stepien, W., Sher, B., & Workman, D. (1995). Implementing problem-based learning in science classroom. School Science and Mathematics, 95(3), 136–146.
Garrison, J. (1997). An alternative to von Glaserfeld’s subjectivism in science education: Deweyan social constructivism. Science Education, 6(3), 301–312.
Geelan, D. (1997). Epistemological anarchy and the many forms of constructivism. Science Education, 6, 15–28.
Gil-Perez, D. (1993). Apprendre les sciences par une recherche de démarche scientifique. Aster, 17, 41–64.
Gil-Perez, D., Martinez-Torregrosa, J., & Senent-Pérez, F. (1987). La résolution de problèmes comme activité de recherché: un instrument de changement conceptuel et méthodologique. Petit x, 14–15, 25–38.
Gobert, J., & Buckley, B. (2000). Introduction to model-based teaching and learning in science education. International Journal of Science Education, 22(9), 891–894.
Good, R. (1993). The many forms of constructivism. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30(9), 1015.
Hashweh, M. (1986). Toward an explanation of conceptual change. European Journal of Science Education, 8(3), 229–249.
Jenkins, E. (2000). Constructivism in school science education: powerful model or the most dangerous intellectual tendency? Science Education, 9, 599–610.
Johsua, S., & Dupin, J.-J. (2003). Introduction à la didactique des sciences et des mathématiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why minimally guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86.
Kotzee, B. (2010). Seven posers in the constructivist classroom. London Review of Education, 8(2), 177–187.
Kruckeberg, R. (2006). A Deweyan perspective on science education: constructivism, experience, and why we learn science. Science Education, 15(1), 1–30.
Larcher, C., Chomat, A., & Méheut, M. (1990). A la recherche d’une stratégie pour modéliser la matière dans ses différents états. Revue Française de Pédagogie, 93(1), 51–61.
Laurence, S., & Margolis, E. (1999). Concepts and cognitive science. In S. Laurence & E. Margolis (Eds.), Concepts: core reading (pp. 3–81). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Linder, C. (1993). A challenge to conceptual change. Science Education, 77(3), 293–300.
Loyens, S., & Gijbels, D. (2008). Understanding the effects of constructivist learning environments: introducing a multi-directional approach. Instructional Science, 36, 351–357.
Martinand, J.-L. (1986). Connaître et transformer la matière: des objectifs pour l’initiation aux sciences et techniques. Berne: Peter Lang.
Matthews, M. (1997). Introductory comments on philosophy and constructivism in science education. Science Education, 6(1–2), 5–14.
Matthews, M. (1998). Preface. In M. Matthews (Ed.), Constructivism in science education: a philosophical examination (pp. 9–12). Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Matthews, M. (2000). Constructivism in science and mathematics education. In D. Phillips (Ed.), National Society for the Study of Education, 99th Yearbook (pp. 161–192). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mayer, R. (2009). Constructivism as a theory of learning versus constructivism as a prescription for instruction. In S. Tobias & T. Duffy (Eds.), Constructivist instruction: success or failure? (pp. 184–200). New York: Routledge.
Mead, G. (1932). The philosophy of the present. LaSalle: Open Court.
Mead, G. (1938). The philosophy of the act. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Mercer, N. (2008). The seeds of time: why classroom dialogue needs a temporal analysis. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(1), 33–59.
Millar, R. (1989). Constructive criticisms. International Journal of Science Education, 11(5), 587–596.
Ministère de l’éducation nationale (France) (2000). Plan de rénovation de l’enseignement des sciences et de la technologie à l’école. Bulletin Officiel de l’Education Nationale, n°23 du 15 juin 2000.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington: National Academy Press.
Nola, R. (1997). Constructivism in science and in science education: a philosophical critique. Science Education, 6(1–2), 55–83.
Northfield, J., & Gunstone, R. (1983). Research on alternative frameworks: implication for science teacher education. Research in Science Education, 13, 185–191.
Osborne, J. (1996). Beyond constructivism. Science Education, 80(1), 53–82.
Phillips, D. (1995). The good, the bad and the ugly: the many faces of constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24(7), 5–12.
Piaget, J. (1965). Etudes sociologiques. Genève: Droz.
Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1966). La psychologie de l’enfant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Piaget, J. (1969). Psychologie et pédagogie. Paris: Denoël.
Piaget, J. (1977a ). La naissance de l’intelligence chez l’enfant. Neuchâtel, Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé.
Piaget, J. (1977b ). La construction du réel chez l’enfant. Lausanne: Delachaux & Niestlé.
Piaget, J. (1997 ). Commentaire sur les remarques critiques de Vygotski concernant 'Le langage et la pensée chez l'enfant' et Le jugement et le raisonnement chez l'enfant'. In L. Vygotsky (Ed.), Thought and language (pp. 501–516). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Pizzini, E., Shepardson, D., & Abell, S. (1989). A rationale for the development of a problem solving model of instruction in science education. Science Education, 73(5), 523–534.
Posner, G., Strike, K., Hewson, P., & Gertzog, W. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66(2), 211–227.
Robardet, G. (1990). Enseigner les sciences physiques à partir de situations-problèmes. Bulletin de l’Union des Physiciens, 84, 17–28.
Robardet, G. (2001). Quelle démarche expérimentale en classe de physique? Notion de situation-problème. Bulletin de l’Union des Physiciens, 95, 1173–1190.
Robardet, G., & Guillaud, J.-G. (1995). Éléments d’épistémologie et de didactique des sciences physiques: de la recherche à la pratique. Grenoble: Publications de l’IUFM de Grenoble.
Rocard, M., Csermely, P., Jorde, D., Lenzen, D., Walberg-Henriksson, H., & Hemmo, V. (2007). Science education now: a renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe. Brussels: Directorate General for Research, European Commission.
Roth, W.-M., Tobin, K., & Ritchie, S. (2008). Time and temporality as mediators of science learning. Science Education, 92, 115–140.
Savery, J., & Duffy, T. (1995). Problem based learning: an instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology, 35(5), 31–38.
Schmidt, H., Loyens, S., van Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2007). Problem-based is compatible with human cognitive architecture: commentary on Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 91–97.
Smith, J., diSessa, A., & Roschelle, J. (1993). Misconceptions reconsidered: a constructivist analysis of knowledge in transition. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(2), 115–163.
Staver, J. (1998). Constructivism: sound theory for explicating the practice of science and science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35(5), 501–520.
Solomon, J. (1994). The rise and fall of constructivism. Studies in Science Education, 23, 1–19.
Tiberghien, A., & Buty, C. (2007). Studying science teaching practices in relation to learning: times scales of teaching phenomena. In R. Pintó & D. Couso (Eds.), Contribution from science education research (pp. 59–75). Dordrecht: Springer.
Tobias, S. (2009). An eclectic appraisal of the success or failure of constructivist instruction. In S. Tobias & T. Duffy (Eds.), Constructivist instruction: success or failure? (pp. 335–350). New York: Routledge.
Tyson, L., Venville, G., Harrison, A., & Treagust, D. (1997). A multidimensional framework for interpreting conceptual change events in the classroom. Science Education, 81(4), 387–404.
Viennot, L. (1996). Raisonner en physique: la part du sens commun. Bruxelles: De Boeck.
Von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism: a way of knowing and learning. London, Washington: The Falmer Press.
Von Glasersfeld, E. (1998 ). Cognition, construction of knowledge and teaching. In M. Matthews (Ed.), Constructivism in science education: a philosophical examination (pp. 11–30), Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Vosniadou, S., & Ioannides, C. (1998). From conceptual change to science education: a psychological point of view. International Journal of Science Education, 20(10), 1213–1230.
Vygotsky, L. (1986 ). Thought and language (Engl. transl.). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Watts, D. (1983). Some alternative views of energy. Physics Education, 18, 213–217.
White, R., & Gunstone, R. (1989). Metalearning and conceptual change. International Journal of Science Education, 11, 577–586.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Science Learning
- Science Teaching
- Personal Constructivism
- Social Constructivism
- Problem construction