Can a Christian (educator) be a Constructivist (too)?

Education’s dominant theory is constructivism, promoted by professional associations, professors, and government departments, and gaining ground in university teaching. Duit estimated that 2,500 constructivist research articles were published in education journals in 1993. Sixteen years later, a Google Scholar search for the terms “constructivism” with “teaching or learning” yields 19,000 bibliographic entries.

Constructivism is “… perhaps less a theory than a collection of principles underpinned by the idea that individuals construct knowledge through interaction with objects and people in their own environments.” Data for constructivism in Christian teacher education programs is hard to come by but it is widely enough taught to prompt scattered expressions of concern. The idea that knowledge is mainly of individual “construction” should challenge Christians. But could a bigger picture allow Christian educators to draw confidently on constructivism?

The force behind constructivism is the perception that teaching tends towards irrelevance. Constructivists contrast themselves with objectivists or instructivists, and constructivist child-centered facilitating is contrasted with content-oriented teaching. If the age-old model is “a lot of teacher talk and a lot of student listening…; almost invariably closed and factual questions; little corrective feedback and not guidance; … predominantly … configur[ed] around traditional activities–all in a virtually affectless environment,” then constructivists want education rebuilt from the bottom up. They say that their approach is based on research on how people actually learn, rather than as we might imagine.

Perhaps the major living constructivist is Ernst von Glasersfeld, who writes,

Radical constructivism…starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it is defined, is in the heads of persons, and that the thinking subject has no alternative but to construct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience. What we make of experience constitutes the only world we consciously live in. … [A]ll kinds of experience are essentially subjective, and though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same.”

Glasersfeld draws on Jean Piaget, whose six decades of research developed a biological understanding of knowing. A fact makes sense within a student’s pre-existing scheme – a perturbance may either shore up or challenge a construction. Successful adaptations are superseded by ever more useful adaptations, not only in natural but also in social environments. Human knowledge arises from action. Genuine education facilitates ongoing transformations. As earlier for the philosopher John Dewey, truth in the classic sense, reality, is unknowable. So genuine learning arises from personal and social experience, not by taking in knowledge deposits.

Constructivist theorists are diverse but in common they make the subject to be the starting point of knowing.

  1. A Christian appropriation?

    To Christians, while knowledge is reasoned, it is importantly revealed. Constructivists seem to propose purely immanent knowing. Could Christians make use of constructivism?

    In a Christian perspective, constructivist “normal” can be only what is immanently observed. For example, the team which wrote Women’s Ways of Knowing (1997) had
    “normal” as the common experiences of the women of the study. Without revelation, without a firm grasp on reality, transcendent norms are not possible.

    On the positive side, any advocacy for learning deeper than “just the facts” should gain a hearing. Transformation of life will be a Christian teacher’s deepest desire but teachers can focus too much on objective course contents. One result of not seeing the learner in context is a gap between what teachers think they are achieving and students’ experience. Indeed, Christian resistance to constructivism might be partly a theological reflex: the Holy Spirit is seen to make “dead knowledge” alive. But the way persons develop also deserves attention. Studying cognitive structures can help teachers to understand capabilities of persons at various stages. Helge Kragh cautions, I think rightly, that it is important not to throw the constructivist baby out with the bathwater.

    Christians can also recognize that constructivists are right when they affirm that there is no given fact. Against naïve scientism (positivism), Christians recognize that finite beings limited in time and space do apprehend reality from their personal situations. The question is then whether acknowledging perspective must put an end to confident knowing. One possibility is that Christian educators could recognize that knowledge is constructed by a process while denying that knowledge is only constructed.

    Critical realism could be a way for Christians to appropriate constructivism faithfully. Roy Bhaskar, Thomas F. Torrance, and others developed realisms that admit human subjectivity without yielding to relativism. They see that the world is interpreted, yet hold the possibility of knowledge being true to the way things are.

    The post-critical philosophy of Michael Polanyi might also assist a Christian appropriation of constructivism. Polanyi, a noted chemist, developed a view of science that sees discoveries as arising within a world picture which is confirmed by persuasive patterns of truth. The whole web of what a scientist knows including tacit aspects is crucial to new discoveries. Polanyi’s realism recognizes human construction of knowledge but also recognizes that patterns can compel assent.

    In general, critical realism affirms that humans appropriate the world subjectively without denying that we can access reality. Glasersfeld has the “critical” in mind without the realism. Granting that some cognitive structures do not reflect reality well, critical realism affirms that some ways of knowing can convincingly capture aspects of reality.

    What would “constructivist-realist” education look like? Here are suggestions. Constructivists note the empirical ineffectiveness of lecture methods: after a short time, only a small percentage of knowledge is retained. Constructivist-realists could reply that since time for schooling is short, not all the scientific or philosophical wisdom of the civilization can be painstakingly reconstructed. In physics, for instance, could we construct a particle accelerator and study particles directly? Lectures will continue to have a place — but not necessarily will they dominate classroom hours. Constructivist-realists will take special care in the construction of key aspects. It might be helpful to note that if knowledge must be humanly constructed, then the knowledge in lectures is (re)constructed too. Christian teachers would construct knowledge by facilitating application in assignments, small groups, or projects, not by just telling applications. Constructivist-realists might discard the metaphor of an academic field, with the connotation of fixed boundaries that must be “covered,” in favor of some dynamic metaphor that recognizes the subjectivity of students so that knowledge dynamically meets human beings in context.

    Constructivism reworked in a faithful epistemology could enrich Christian pedagogy.


    IAPCHE member Ted Newell, Ed. D. (Columbia) teaches worldview and education theory at Crandall University, Moncton, Canada.

    From IAPCHE Contact CTC 211 available at


Perspectives course truly Biblical?

The trick in curriculum design is mirroring the fullness of reality.

That’s one reason why “religious education” leaders sometimes object to “catechesis” — if you are just “sounding back” — the literal meaning of catechesis — have you absorbed the significance of what you are mouthing? Have students fully wrestled out the options, or are you just making students “buy” what you are selling?

If it is true that “the trick in curriculum design is mirroring the fullness of reality,” then you as responsible educator should accept that you guide human beings who can make up their own minds, but that the truth must be allowed to speak for itself.

I can think of objections from all sides but I want to think out loud about one particular course that I spent a fair amount of time thinking about, on Monday.

It is entitled, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, and it enrols thousands of people every year, is growing like crazy, has tens of thousands of graduates, and many ambassadors. It can be taken for university or college credit or done as a demanding adult education course, or even audited. The core is a massive reader of 150 excellent articles.


Here is the course design.

Part 1. God did this and revealed this. 5 sessions or so.

Part 2. Here’s how the divinely given Story has worked out in the lives of people since then (human history’s lessons) 4 sessions or so.

Part 3. Here are strategic implications, things one person can do to participate in what we think are the implications of the Divine Story and the human experience. You can participate! Make a decision! Act in some area that is congruent with your abilities and potentials! Why would you wish otherwise!?

In Part 1, God is assumed. He is assumed in the same way that the divine writ also assumes the existence, power, and capacity of the one true God. He is never proven ala Aquinas, not within the holy writ itself. The book is a record of human history from a divine perspective, not written by dictation for sure, but by human beings whose personalities body forth in their deliverances of divine communication. As such the divine record can be and is a template by which to read human history subsequently.

Here I the reader and student am placed in the position as having to figure out the veracity and trust-worthiness of the record, my response to it. Like any sermon, Part 1 will have human weaknesses built in from being located in time and place, part of human culture and history: no one except Christ has gotten beyond those limitations, and even the revelation that is his is in the context of Second Temple Judaism. So we are stuck in a hermeneutical circle but — quickly said — so is the Incarnation of the Son of God himself, and he has been communicating himself in and through the church for centuries, transforming all kinds of people. So: Part 1 puts me the student in position as hearer who must respond.

Part 2 holds off on immediate response, though. Sometimes the lines to “do this” are drawn too quickly. Part 2 obliges students to look at the wide variety of ways that God’s missionary heart has expressed itself fruitfully over the centuries.

Then, Part 3 relates the above for agencies and persons today. Message: you can contribute! Find real meaning. Get excited! Get on board! Here’s how!

My reflection today is: this pattern may be reproducing an encounter with the Living God. It is not making students agree with abstractions. It does not go backwards into philosophy, at least not on the surface. (I shaded into that territory above.) It does not try to prove God. The course adopts a pattern that looks like “Hebrew Bible through Christ, into Acts”!

(What do I mean? Well, the apostles went out because they were gripped by a (somewhat) similar pattern of understanding and could nt keep from telling what they had heard and seen.)

Instantly I want to see in the course where the nature of the gospel is identified and discussed. Is justification in the student assumed already, or is it developed? I’m going to go and look in the course for “how Christ fulfills history, and you.”

However, for now: have you ever been part of any course that does not “do the trick”? What excites you — or howls at you — from my little description of a curriculum?



Black Mass by John Gray a shocker

Black Mass: How Religion Led the World into Crisis: John Gray: Books.

Amazed at this book — like Eric Voegelin but far more readable. The first few pages on the power of UTOPIA in Western politics blew me away. The middle chapters on UK and US current politics were dodgier but the pieces on radical Islam, Communism, and Nazism, connect the dots totally. You will see his theme all over the news, once you get his picture. VISION’s power, for any longsuffering worldview students. Can’t wait to track down his book on human nature: Straw Dogs.


Location, location, location

If I had to give advice to a new university teacher, I would say, when you teach a new course, borrow or steal someone else’s that has been working and follow the recipe, slavishly.

I made this mistake myself.

Being new, I thought I had a new perspective that a previous teacher had missed.

Little did I know.

Courses are an ecology of teacher, material, and students.

It is no easier to get the ecology right than to get the biology right in keeping fish, so that the fish stay alive and swimming. That bowl of two fish that a friend gave your kid looks easy to keep, but as anyone knows who has conducted a fishy funeral, it ain’t so.

Ditto courses.

If they work, follow the recipe. Don’t make up your own until your bread rises, your pastry is flaky, your fish stay afloat, or whatever metaphor you wish.

A funny [strange] analogy is in church teaching.

I had a course that had transformed me.

I made up a version that I could use with a casual group of adult learners in my office on Sunday mornings, one hour.

No body cared.

Then, discouraged, I did nothing for three years with the material.

The opportunity arose to host the course in someone’s home, with a group that opted in deliberately, with no time restriction but an expectation for a couple of hours.

They and I loved it.

Go figure.

Context matters. The context of the material matters. They call it “environment” in the literature. It must matter. It did in this case.