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American Philosophy

Constructivism, Educational Research, and John Dewey

Raf Vanderstraeten and Gert Biesta
Utrecht University
R.Vanderstraeten@FSW.RUU.NL and G.Biesta@FSW.RUU.NL

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ABSTRACT: Schools are expected to transmit knowledge to younger generations. They are, however, also increasingly criticized for distributing so-called inert knowledge, i.e., knowledge that is accessed only in a restricted set of contexts even though it is applicable to a wide variety of domains. The causes of limited knowledge transfer are mostly attributed to the dis-embeddedness of learning situations in schools. Instructional procedures that result in learning in the sense of being able to recall relevant information provide no guarantee that people will spontaneously use it later. "Authentic learning," acquiring knowledge in the contexts that (will) give this knowledge its meaning, is now being presented as an alternative. Underpinning these reform proposals is not only a (growing) concern with efficiency, but is also a new epistemological theory, labelled as constructivism. This paper will, first, focus on the layout of and diverging perspectives within recent constructivist research in education. Next, the epistemological approach of John Dewey will be discussed, which takes as its starting point the relation of knowledge to action. Finally, we will indicate what a Deweyan approach might add to the constructivist research in education.

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One indication of the rate of growth of constructivist research in education is the proliferation of its perspectives and positions. Apparently, it is already found wanting to distinguish between different themes, accents, evaluations. Instead, one speaks of contrasting ‘paradigms’. Thus, Steffe & Gale distinguish in a reader entitled Constructivism in education six different "core paradigms", viz "social constructivism, radical constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism, cybernetic systems, and sociocultural approaches to mediated action" (1995, p.xiii). All of these so-called paradigms reject traditional epistemological claims about knowledge as an objective representation of ‘reality’. Their arguments are, however, only rarely directed against inherited traditional conceptions. Rather, it are the newly formulated alternatives which serve as points of reference. Constructivist ‘paradigms’ are most of all elaborated in debate with fellow-alternatives.

The most outspoken pioneer of a constructivist approach to teaching has been Ernst von Glasersfeld, whose ‘radical constructivism’ still is at the center of the debate. Elaborating on the works of Jean Piaget, von Glasersfeld has particularly focussed on individual self-regulation and the building of conceptual structures through reflection and abstraction. According to von Glasersfeld, ‘authentic’ learning depends on seeing a problem as ‘one’s own problem’, as an obstacle that obstructs one’s progress toward a goal. The farthest removed from this individualistic focus seems to be the sociocultural approach that originated with Ljev Vygotskij in Russia. It stresses the socially and culturally situated nature of mental activities, and defines learning as getting acquainted with cultural practices, their particular exigencies, limits and possibilities. Actually, both contrasting positions are able to present research outcomes underlying their particular point of view, and for a long time each perspective remained apparently immune to the criticism being raised by the other side. The impasse resembled what Kuhn has called the ‘incommensurability of paradigms’.

Contrary to what more detailed classifications seem to imply, it has been the tension between an individualistic (subjective) and a sociocultural (intersubjective) focus that has structured the field. The unsettled paradigmatic conflict has enabled, on the one hand, the opportunistic use of theory within research, invoking, for example, at point a of the argumentation radical constructivist elements and at point b sociocultural arguments, without much thought about the reconcilability of the underlying perspectives. On the other hand, however, it has recently also stimulated deliberate attempts at integrating (parts of) these different positions. Thus, Cobb made an influential case for coordinating sociocultural and cognitive constructivist perspectives, proposing "that the adoption of one perspective or another should be justified in terms of its potential to address issues whose resolution might contribute to the improvement of students’ education" (1994, p.18). How helpful this device might be to coordinate research interests, from a theoretical and epistemological point of view it is not very challenging. In fact, it indicates once more that fundamental issues have virtually disappeared from view in this discussion. Why is constructivism a new epistemology? What is its position vis-Ó-vis the scientific and philosophical tradition?

To point out the relevance and the consequences of a constructivist theory of knowledge, one should first of all clarify its basic intuition. In our view, the hard core of constructivism concerns the reconcilability of, on the one hand, plurality of knowledge and, on the other, its reference to reality. If knowledge is no representation of reality but construction, how does it have a hold in reality? How is, in other words, the existence of plural realities to be accounted for? To be sure (and against often raised objections in philosophical discussions), constructivism does not entail a relativist, anti-realist position. Neither does it recur to the sceptic or ‘solipsistic’ doubt about whether there is any external world. In a way, the multitude of empirical research based on a constructivist perspective should already be convincing evidence for its realism. The objections do obtain, however, a certain persuasiveness against the background of a long-standing philosophical and epistemological tradition. In fact, it appears to be particularly difficult to make the case of constructivism, because its arguments get almost always caught within an old epistemological framework, which constructivism precisely tries to abandon.


An author who has been for a lifetime engaged in elaborating a constructivist theory of knowledge is John Dewey (1859-1952). As Toulmin argues, in his introduction to Dewey’s The quest for certainty, Dewey’s work contains a "radical dismantling of the epistemological tradition" displaying "farsightedness, perception and originality of a kind that could hardly be recognized [at the time it appeared]". Moreover, "Dewey’s critique was not intended to be merely destructive. It offered also, in outline, a positive view about ‘the relation of knowledge to action’ ...; and this view too has only been reinforced by subsequent developments within the natural sciences themselves" (Toulmin, 1984, p.ix-x; cf. e.g. Rorty, 1982). In our view, Dewey’s argumentation enables to take both the subjective (individual) and intersubjective (sociocultural) dimensions of the construction of knowledge into account within the same constructivist framework. In the last paragraph, we want to show that this Deweyan approach also entails a critique of and an alternatieve approach to the constructivist ‘paradigms’ to teaching, which were mentioned before.

A leitmotiv throughout Dewey’s work is an attempt to reconsider the relationship of organism and environment. Already in his famous article of 1896, The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology, Dewey criticized contemporary psychology for treating organisms as detached from their environment. "It is the motor response of attention which constitutes that, which finally becomes the stimulus to another act" (1896, EW5, p.101-102).(1)Consequently, Dewey stressed the continuous, intrinsic connection of organism and world on the level of action, and introduced the notions of transaction and experience. Reflection is a secondary phenomenon related to the level of action. It has to ensure the continuity of action. According to Dewey, "reflection arises because of the appearance of incompatible factors within the empirical situation... Then opposed responses are provoked which cannot be taken simultaneously in overt action" (1916, MW10, p.326). Knowing is no process of registration or representation, but one of intervention. Knowledge does not refer to an external, independent and objective reality, but always participates in the action.

Deweys argument about the function of knowledge and reflection—to ensure the continuity of action—brings the crucial role of time to the fore. "Knowing consists of operations that give experienced objects a form in which the relations, upon which the onward course of events depends, are securely experienced" (1929, LW4, p.235). Knowledge is not concerned with experienced objects as such, but with future experiences which might ensue from the present situation. To make inferences from present situations creates at the same time uncercainty. "Inference brings ... truth and falsity in the world" as Dewey underlined (1915, MW8, p.70). Thus, truth does not refer to the correspondence between statement and reality at the same moment, but to the correspondence of expected and realized meaning, to coherence in the course of time. This ‘temporalization’ of the concept of truth results from Deweys alternative conceptualization of the relation of organism and environment. Transaction does not consist of a subject who deals with an external universe. Every organism participates entirely in his lifeworld. There is no reality without experience. And there is no reality which is not affected by this experience. Every act (also an act of knowing) creates a new reality.

To explain why human beings nevertheless live in a ‘common world’, Dewey’s constructivism has neither to recur to an objective world nor postulate an apriori equipment of subjects with appropriate structures of knowing. Social interaction enables (and forces) everyone involved in it to pay attention to the contribution made by the other participants. To be able to continue the social interaction, one has to observe and reckon with the objects and inferences which others construct. It is in this way that something is "literally made in common in at least two different centres of behavior" (1925, LW1, p.141). To understand, Dewey adds, "is to anticipate together, it is to make a cross-reference which, when acted upon brings about a partaking in a common, inclusive undertaking. (...) To fail to understand it to fail to come into agreement in action" (1925, LW1, p.141).

Given this account of human interaction, it is not too difficult to see that the existence of subjective realities poses no real threat to the possibility of mutual understanding. Understanding one another means "that objects, including sounds, have the same value for both with respect to carrying on a common pursuit" (1916, MW9, p.19). Dewey not only argues that in order to accomplish "agreement in action" it is necessary to "come to likeness of attitude, or to agreement as to proper diversity of attitude" (1911, MW6, p.17). He also holds that it is precisely as a result of the process in which agreement in action is aimed at, that individual realities are transformed in such a way that objects get the same value for both with respect to carrying on a common pursuit. It is important to note, that although agreement in action requires a sufficient coordination of individual perspectives, it does in no way require that these perspectives become identical. People remain to 'live' in their own reality, although this reality has now been sufficiently transformed to make agreement in action possible.


Dewey’s work is, on the one hand, directed against traditional epistemological positions, of idealist and realist origins alike. Dewey focusses on a critique of their common foundations, viz the split between object and subject, reality and knowledge, world and consciousness. His work lays, on the other hand, the foundations of a constructivist epistemological program, which starts from the relation of knowledge to action. These foundations have proven to be secure, as recent neopragmatic research also testifies. Moreover, they enable an evaluation of the arguments brought to the fore in discussions between radical constructivist and socio-cultural approaches to teaching. Dewey’s transactional theory of knowledge makes clear that the discussions in the educational realm continue to live on the split of reality and knowledge. To a large extent, constructivist ‘paradigms’ to teaching are still tied to a traditional, dualistic framework.

Dewey’s work leads us, first, to a constructivist critique of ‘radical constructivism’. In our view, radical constructivist theories of knowledge fall short of explaining the existence of plural worlds. In discussing the relation of knowledge and reality, it does not suffice—as is often done—to adopt an attitude of na´vetÚ and reiterate once more that the correspondence between reality and knowledge cannot be proved. Neither does it suffice to acknowledge in general terms the existence of an external world, but take an agnostic position regarding the question what this world further looks like.(2) Even if concepts such as ‘viability’ or ‘compatibility’ are put to use, it should be pointed out in what respect there is no correspondence, in what respect there are no external ‘objects’ out there. This endeavor has to be based on a detailed analysis of the process of knowing itself. For this project of a ‘naturalized epistemology’ (Quine), Dewey’s transactionalism certainly laid the foundations. The detailed account of the relation of knowledge to action enables an explanation of the existence of plural worlds, not of plural perspectives on the world.

In this respect, and this is our second Deweyan remark, the work of Vygotskij is not of much help. It does not offer an alternative, but rather a complement to idealistic and radical constructivist accounts of knowledge, embedded in the same dualistic tradition. Vygotskij’s work took shape at a time the social deficit of Cartesian and Kantian epistemology—which focussed on self-analysis of an individual consciousness—became the target of much critique. The analyses of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud gave rise to several attempts to incorporate the social dimension in epistemological theories. Vygotskij’s cultural-historical theory of psychological development focusses on the role of the intersubjective dimension in processes of knowledge acquisition. According to Vygotskij, knowledge acquisition is equal to internalization of the environment.(3) Social constructivist approaches of this kind have, for sure, difficulty to incorporate individual differences and to account for processes of deviance. Moreover, the environment remains an objective infrastructure, external and independent of the processes of interiorization. What, one can also ask, makes up for the emergence and development of social practices, which individuals have to interiorize?

Against this unsatisfactory background, it should come as no surprise that ‘balanced’ programs receive much attention, which aiming to coordinate radical constructivist and sociocultural approaches. This ‘theoretical pragmatism’ is, however, mainly based on the defects of the respective paradigms, not on their accomplishments. It is an attempt to weigh out the negative aspects. And it is only within a dualistic framework, contrasting knowledge and reality, subject and object, that these negative aspects seemingly neutralize each other, and that a coordination of cognitive constructivist and sociocultural approaches seems to catch it all. It has to be repeated once more that so-called constructivist approaches to teaching need to take a more vigorous approach to theoretical problems.

One starting point could be a renewed analysis of the problems of an educational ‘technology’. In families and schools, parents and teachers daily try to influence and change their children or pupils. Education, however, lacks a technical culture, a set of laws or rules on which educators could base their efforts to produce desired changes in their pupils. Education is, in other words, confronted with a technological deficit. This deficit has, nevertheless, almost never been analyzed theoretically. Educational theory has opted against analyzing this problem. It favored a position which did not allow technological relations between human beings. Backed up by Kant’s Categorical Imperative, ‘not being able to’ got translated into a ‘not willing to’. Of course, this strategy did not resolve the empirical problem of teachers and parents. But how can it be brought to the fore? At this point, a constructivist theory might prove its fruitfulness, especially because reality and variety, subjectivity and intersubjectivity are obvious factors in the game.(4) A genuine constructivist treatment should be able to elaborate concepts which allow an analysis along these lines. It can prove that nothing is as practical as a good constructivist theory.

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(1) References are to the collected works of John Dewey, published by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale & Edwardsville, Il., under the general editorship of Jo Ann Boydston. The collected works consist of three series, the Early Works, the Middle Works, and the Later Works, to which we refer as EW, MW, and LW, followed by volume number and page(s) and preceded by the original year of publication of the text.

(2) "I have never denied an absolute reality, I only claim, as the skeptics do, that we have no way of knowing it" (von Glasersfeld, 1995, p.7). Elaborating on Piaget’s notion of adaptation, von Glasersfeld argues elsewhere for example that "one cannot draw conclusions about the character of the real world from an organism’s adaptedness or the viability of schemes of action. ... what we see, hear, and feel— that is, our sensory world— is the result of our own perceptual activities and therefore specific to our ways of perceiving and conceiving" (1996, p.4).

(3) "In the development of the child is, that which should be realized at the end of the development, as the result of the development, already present in the environment from the very beginning onwards" (Vygotskij, 1996, p.178).

(4) Some suggestions regarding the pedagogical implications of our interpretation of pragmatism can be found in Biesta (1994, 1995).


Biesta, G.J.J. (1994). Education as practical intersubjectivity. Towards a critical-pragmatic understanding of education. Educational Theory, 44(3), 299-317.

Biesta, G.J.J. (1995). Pragmatism as a pedagogy of communicative action. In J. Garrison (Ed.), The New Scholarship on John Dewey (pp. 105-122). Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Cobb, P. (1994). Where is the mind? Constructivist and sociocultural perspectives on mathematical development. Educational Researcher, 23, 13-20.

Dewey, John

1896 EW5: 96-109 The reflex arc concept in psychology

1911 MW6: 12-68 The problem of truth

1915 MW8: 14-82 The Logic of judgements of practice

1916 MW9 Democracy and education

1916 MW10: 320-365 Introduction to Essays in experimental logic

1925 LW1 Experience and nature

1929 LW4 The quest for certainty

Glasersfeld, E. von (1995). A constructivist approach to teaching. In L.P. Steffe & J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in Education (pp.3-15). Hilsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Glasersfeld, E. von (1996). Introduction: Aspects of constructivism. In C.T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice (pp. 3-7). New York-London: Teachers College Press.

Rorty, R. (1982). Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Toulmin, S. (1984). Introduction. In John Dewey, LW4: The Quest for certainty.

Vygotskij, L. (1996). Cultuur en Ontwikkeling [Culture and Development]. Amsterdam: Boom.

Whitehead, A.N. (1932). The Aims of Education and Other Essays. London: Williams & Norgate.

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