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Topics in Education: What is Social Constructionism?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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From Social Theory to Educational Method

Social Constructionism is a theory of sociology that has exerted an enormous influence on the development of modern education. Social Constructionism, also known as Social Constructivism, comes from the ideas of a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky who lived and worked during the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Though he died before his work became widely known in the western world, his theory of social development became extremely influential in the creation of a 21st century approach to classroom teaching. Vygotsky is most famous for the following proposal, first published in 1930 in the work “Mind and Society”:

“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people, and then, inside the child … All the higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.”

 In the latter half of the 20th century, educators began applying this concept in schools. Up to that point, the most common method of teaching was for teachers to stand in front of the class and deliver lectures while students diligently took notes, memorized information and reproduced it on worksheet assignments, in papers, or on tests, exactly as delivered by the teachers, in order to get a grade. This method was used across the board, from early education all the way through college and graduate school. The teacher or professor was considered the absolute expert in the subject being taught, and the students were only there to listen, learn, and repeat word for word what was taught to them.

How Social Constructionism Changed Teaching

One concept that educators learned from the ideas of Vygotsky was that learning can be viewed as a social process, and that children form their ideas about the world, themselves and each other through the experience of interacting with other people. Teachers began to understand that in the minds of children, knowledge is created collaboratively. Rather than looking at children as empty vessels that needed to be filled with facts, figures and rules, they began to look at children as active participants in the learning process. Once this realization began to take hold, the idea of student-directed learning started to emerge. Most parents are now familiar with the concepts of project-based learning, interactive assignments, team research and real-world learning. All of these relatively new teaching methods are due to the influence that Social Constructionism has exerted on education.

Differences Between a “Student-Centered Classroom” and a “Teacher as Expert” Classroom

In a student-centered classroom, the knowledge, teachers consider the experience and ideas of the student when teaching a lesson. Students are not just passive learners. They are active participants in the process of creating knowledge. The role of the teacher is to guide the student to the discovery of new information, which can then be directed toward the next phase of learning. Though the teacher does, in fact, have more knowledge than the student, their role is not just to stand and deliver, it’s to present and interpret.

Another difference between a student-centered classroom and a teacher-centered classroom is the role of assessments, or testing. Tests do occur in student-centered classrooms, but less frequently. More common ways to gauge the knowledge of students in classrooms that use the constructionist model are group project presentations, individual presentations, journal assignments, personal portfolios, group role playing assignments and debates.

Positive Effects of Social Constructionism on Education

First and foremost, a constructionist/constructivist classroom gives students ownership of the knowledge they acquire. A collaborative atmosphere fosters a free and productive learning environment. When teachers value and validate their students’ ideas, students bring themselves enthusiastically to almost any subject. Most parents can remember days sitting in the classroom thinking “What on earth does this have to do with me? I can’t relate. What does this actually have to do with my world?” A constructionist classroom does not ignore these questions. Instead, it addresses them straight ahead by asking the students what they know about a particular topic, how they feel about it, how they think it relates to them, and how the knowledge in question might transfer to real life.

Also, by breaking out of the traditional “lecture-listen-take notes-reproduce on test or quiz” method of teaching, a constructionist/constructivist approach accommodates a wide variety of learning styles. If a student speaks better than they listen, teachers can us a presentation to assess the knowledge learned. If a student writes better than they speak in public, teachers can use a journal assessment. There are as many methods to assess knowledge as there are ways to learn. And the way to gauge success depends on the combined inspiration of the teacher and the student. Finally, a classroom infused with this atmosphere of mutual creativity instills a love of knowledge. It produces students who are not robots who memorize facts for a test or exam and then promptly forget them. Rather, it produces students who value education and become life-long learners.

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