Early Childhood Education

Social Constructivism


Social constructivism is an educational theory with roots in both cognitive constructivism (Piaget, 1950; Piaget and Inhelder, 1969) and socio-cultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978); and conceptual links to the theory of discourse known as social constructionism (Gergen, 1999). The discourse which shaped social constructivism dates back to the 1970s when a community of educators raised their concerns with transmission models of teaching and learning that emphasize rote memorization and decontextualized tasks. At its core, social constructivism rests on the theoretical assumption that reality and knowledge are emergent and situated in social context and constructed as people engage with others in joint activity (Cobb, 2002; Cole and Wertsch, 1996; Wells, 2000).


Social Constructivism as Distinct from Constructivism

While social constructivism shares some epistemological notions with cognitive constructivism, within the field of early childhood education it was also a response to this theory. Specifically, social constructivism in educational settings arose out of a concern about the teacher’s role in the classroom. For example, in the application of constructivist theory in classrooms, interaction and direct instruction between children and teachers is played down in favor of an emphasis on the child’s exploration of the physical environment. Social constructivism, in contrast, emphasizes the importance of collaboration between the teacher and student, and students with each other, as social interaction is viewed as the primary means for children to construct new meanings. As such, social constructivism and constructivism differ in a fundamental tenet; constructivism views learning as following development and the disequilibrium that occurs as children act upon the physical environment, whereas social constructivism views learning as leading development and as something that occurs as children engage in social activities with others.

According to social constructivist theory, cognition and learning exists in a dialectical relationship with the social world. Dialectical process is a term used both by social constructivists and constructivists to describe how children resolve cognitive conflicts to produce higher levels of mental functioning. Constructivists suggest that cognitive conflicts are resolved through the child acting on the physical environment, and the child gradually comes to understand how things work—practically and in the abstract, types of knowledge that Piaget referred to as “physical knowledge” and “logico-mathematical knowledge.” Social constructivists interpret conflicts and knowledge differently, suggesting that conflicts are resolved through social processes; knowledge is something that is distributed across, between and within individuals and the collective. However, knowledge is not simply transmitted to the child from the social world, but rather it is appropriated and transformed as children engage with others, making children active agents in the learning process. The underlying assumption is that knowledge is always emerging as the child acts upon the social context and the social context acts upon the child, which allows for new meanings to be constructed as they influence one another. According to the social constructivist, then, knowledge is “(re)created in a specific activity setting, involving particular individuals who have a common goal, or at least a set of overlapping goals, to which they are all orienting” (Wells, 2000, p. 71).


Social Constructivism as Distinct from Sociocultural Theory

Social constructivism is also conceptually related, but distinct from, sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) and activity theory (Leont’ev, 1981). One notable distinction is how each theory views the contextual nature of learning and the construction of knowledge. For example, sociocultural theory places an emphasis on the mediating role of historically situated cultural tools and artifacts. In other words, it is not the social context alone that produces new understandings, but also the cultural tools and artifacts within it that produce and shape new knowledge: “artifacts clearly do not serve simply to facilitate mental processes that would otherwise exist. Instead, they fundamentally shape and transform them” (Cole and Wertsch, 1996, p. 252). Similarly, social constructivism and activity theory differ in that activity theory examines not only the immediate social and cultural context and the historical context but also how the production of knowledge is both constrained and shaped by history, which informs present “activity systems” (Cole, 1995). The central focus of activity theory is on systems of activities, which are bound by history and culture and have primacy over the individual cognitive functioning as the unit of analysis. The important point is that the collective systems located in social, cultural, and historical contexts override the notion of the isolated individual mind.


Social Constructivism as Distinct from Social Constructionism

A final distinction that is important to note are the differences between social constructivism and social constructionism (Gergen, 1999). Social constructivism and social constructionism differ in that social constructivism focuses on the Vygotskian notion that the individual mind is first social and then individual and the importance social context has in learning. In contrast, social constructionism places a primary emphasis on discourse as a vehicle for constructing knowledge (Gergen, 1999). The important distinction rests on the role and place of the individual mind. In social constructivism, the individual mind internalizes ways of being through collaboration with others in social context, while social constructionism eschews the notion of the mind as an individual container and instead focuses on what happens between the minds of people.

Social Constructivism and Educational Practice

Paul Cobb’s work (2002) on mathematical learning is an example of the evolution from constructivism to social constructivism as the theory has been applied to education. Cobb’s framework is derived from both constructivism and social interaction, and “together, the two perspectives treat mathematical learning as both a process of active individual construction and a process of enculturation into the mathematical practices of wider society” (McClain and Cobb, 2001, p. 105). The focus is not on the development of mathematical knowledge in isolation, but rather on understanding how mathematical learning and cognitive growth are grounded in classroom communities. Within classroom communities, sociomathematical norms and practices are constructed, accepted, and/or rejected by teachers and students, processes that affect cognitive growth and mathematical understandings. Within this perspective the learner and the teacher, as well as the individual and the collective, are seen to exist in a reflexive relationship in which “one does not exist without the other” (McClain and Cobb, 2001, p. 105).

Given that the role of the social context and interactions with others is central in social constructivism, practical applications have also focused on joint activity between learners and teachers. According to Wells (2000), “Vygotskian theory, or social constructivism, as we might call its educational application, thus calls for an approach to learning and teaching that is both exploratory and collaborative” (p. 61). Learning and teaching from this perspective views both the teacher and the students as active agents in the construction of knowledge. Content should not be taught in a rote linear fashion but should be explored and examined in a holistic, emergent manner so that the focus is on the process of joint activity rather than on specific predetermined outcomes. An emergent curriculum allows for dialogue and diversity in ways of solving problems that supports and builds on the prior knowledge that teachers and students bring with them in order to create shared understandings. In this view, each learning event is seen as unique, and the teacher and the students both take the position of the learner. This differs from other views that position the teacher as someone who imparts knowledge to the less advanced students.

In a social constructivist classroom, knowledge is always in the process of being constructed; both the teacher and the students are always constructing new ways of thinking about and solving problems. Thus, practical applications of social constructivist teaching are grounded in the notion that learning is a reciprocal and collaborative process among all members. See also Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich.

Further Readings: Cobb, P. (2002). Reasoning with tools and inscriptions. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 11(2&3), 187-215; Cole, M. (1995). Cultural-historical psychology: A meso-genetic approach. In L. Martin K. Nelson and E. Tobach, eds., Sociocultural psychology: Theory and practice of doing and knowing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 168-204; Cole, M., and J. Wertsch (1996). Beyond the individual-social antinomy in discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky. Human Development 39, 250-256; Gergen, K. (1999). An invitation to social constructionism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; Leont’ev, A. N. (1981). Problems in the development of mind. Moscow: Progress Publishers; McClain, K. and P. Cobb (2001). Supporting students’ ability to reason about data. Educational Studies in Mathematics 45, 103-129; Piaget, J. (1950). The psychology of intelligence. New York: Hartcourt, Brace; Piaget, J., and B. Inhelder (1969). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books; Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental functions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Wells, G. (2000). Dialogic inquiry in education: Building on the legacy of Vygotsky. In C. Lee and P. Smagorinsky, eds., Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 51-85.

Samara Madrid and Rebecca Kantor