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


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