Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.
Constructivism essentially argues that epistemic agents know nothing about the world except what they have put together as cognitive structures. Rather than knowledge being a representation of what exists, constructivists posit knowledge as a mapping of what turns out to be feasible based on human experience. Piaget considers knowledge as the set of cognitive structures that are viable given our experiences and maintain a dynamic state of equilibrium in which knowledge yields expected results for experience. Piaget elaborates a two-fold instrumentalism for knowledge: (1) a utilitarian instrumentality where action schemes at the sensory-motor level help learners achieve goals in their interactions with the world; and (2) an epistemic instrumentality where operative schemes at the level of reflective abstraction create a coherent conceptual network that reflects the paths of acting and thinking that are viable. Learning occurs when an existing scheme produces unexpected results and leads to perturbations. (von Glasersfeld, 1998)
If an individual, who cannot know anything expect what they have created, interacts with another individual what would it mean to say they have a shared understanding? If both have a conceptual structure such that they do not do or say anything that contradicts the expectations of the other then this would achieve a manifest understanding even though such conceptual structures may be completely different. If contradictions arise then this would create cognitive conflict leading to perturbations. As a result social interactions may lead to learning opportunities, and the more advanced the conceptual structures involved, the more likely the chance of conflict. The potential problem of this constructivist approach is that it does not always explain co-operation or collaboration.
Another approach to social construction might be found in Vygotsky’s activity oriented psychology, which introduces the principle argument that activity explains consciousness. That action leads to thought is shared in both the Piagetian and Vygotskian models, however Vygotsky argues that rather than arriving at mature forms of thought through interaction, learner’s master their psychological processes through the tools of given culture (Kozulin, 1998). Vygotsky’s examination of the genesis of mental functions and the understanding of mental functions as formations in a complex structure led to the idea of mediation and a circle of cultural-historical development. Vygotsky’s use of the sign in fulfilling the role of psychological tool is “one of the most successful examples of the application of semiotic ideas in psychology” (Davydov & Radzikhovskii, 1985, pg. 54).
The use of the sign as a social construct provides a system that can be shared within a given culture and provides a model for how individuals can cooperate and collaborate that is consistent with a constructivist notion of knowledge. Language is the most common example of such a sign system that facilitates collaboration. When it comes to more advanced knowledge where everyday experience may not lead to the concepts of the scientific domain the role of the expert or teacher becomes apparent. Piagetian constructivsim suggests that learners should be directed and encouraged to follow their path where teachers provide accommodations that are within the learner’s reach. A similar process in Vygotskian terms would see the teachers introduce new psychological tools that enhance the cognitive repertoire and can serve as mediators for new processes. Vygotsky’s use of signs as a mediator allow a distinction between sense and reference. A learner may demonstrate a spontaneous concept (or pseudoconcept) in which they know the objects to which the concept refers but are not conscious of the meaning, whereas for scientific concepts the relation to objects is mediated by some other concept. “Spontaneous concepts are related to the world of denotation, to reference, and scientific concepts are related to the world of sense (or meaning)” (Lee, 1985, pg. ).
Davydov, V. V., & Radzikhovskii, L. A. (1985). Vygotsky’s theory and the activity-oriented approach in psychology. In J. V Wertsch (Ed.), Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives (pp. 35–65). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kozulin, A. (1998). Psychological Tools. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
Lee, B. (1985). Intellectual origins of Vygotsky’s semiotic analysis. In J. V Wertsch (Ed.), Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives (pp. 66–93). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
von Glasersfeld, E. (1998). Cognition, Construction of Knowledge, and Teaching. In Constructivism in Science Education (pp. 11–30). Springer, Dordrecht.