It is known that psychology is a young science, which has not yet matured completely. One of the aspects in which this becomes more evident is the fact that within psychology there is no unifying theory , that is, a theoretical pillar on which all the knowledge extracted from researchers is based.

On the other hand, there are many schools of thought and approaches and starting points that are totally different and, to a large extent, contrary to each other. Constructivism is one of these sets of academic currents, and historically it has been very important , especially in educational psychology. Let us see why.

The constructivist approach

The term “constructivism” may well sound familiar to people who have studied philosophy, because it can be used to refer to a philosophical trend that emerged in the 20th century and is closely related to post-modern thought. From this philosophical constructivism, emphasis is placed on the interpretative component of everything we come to know, instead of underlining the importance of aspiring to objectivity and realism.

Thus, there is a moderate constructivism that limits itself to sustaining that reality cannot be known directly and that our totally subjective interpretations will be the foundation of what we believe we know, and another radical constructivism according to which reality is, directly, the construction that we carry out from our interpretations. In other words, reality, as we usually understand it, does not exist, because it is not independent of our thoughts and cannot be dissociated from our mental activity.

The difference between moderate and “extremist” constructivism is that the former does not deny the existence of a material reality beyond ideas, while the latter does. However, both form part of a current of thought that deals with problems of an epistemological and ontological nature , and that is why they formally belong to philosophy and not to psychology. The constructivism of psychology is something that is born from another type of questions , although as we shall see it has several similarities with its philosophical relative.

Psychological constructivism: what is it?

If philosophical constructivism is in charge of trying to answer the question of what we can get to know and how this knowledge is related to “reality”, the constructivism of psychology is much more pragmatic and focuses on studying how learning is carried out and the generation of schemes of meaning in our way of thinking in order to be able to apply these scientific discoveries, especially in two branches of psychology: psychotherapy and educational psychology.

In this way, the idea of “construction of knowledge” used in the constructivism of psychology is less abstract than that of its analogue in philosophy, and its reason for being is the need to create scientific theories capable of predicting part of what will happen in the behaviour of people (in general), and of giving solutions to concrete problems (in particular).

Thus, the constructivism of psychology can be defined as a set of theories and schools of thought (belonging to this scientific field) that are based on the idea that the way in which individuals generate knowledge from their experiences is through an active role in which they create unique systems of meaning and whose value is not in resembling more or less reality.

Two examples: Piaget and Vygotsky

Among the researchers who are normally considered part of constructivism in psychology are two of the great figures in the history of developmental and educational psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky .

Both started from the idea that the engine of knowledge creation from which learning develops is the interaction with the environment (and, in Vygotsky’s case, with the society in which we live), driven by curiosity. Therefore, it is not a task based on internal activities, but something that arises from the relationship with the immediate context.

This idea is reflected in his way of understanding childhood, a stage marked by the forced creation of systems of meaning that, although they do not reflect reality at all, are very useful for continuing to learn quickly from previous experiences , which allows learning to exist. We may not live with reliable images of what happens, but at least these allow us to deal correctly with those problems that assail us, regardless of the stage of life in which we find ourselves.

To read more about these two researchers, you can visit this pair of articles:

  • “Jean Piaget’s Theory of Learning”
  • “The Sociocultural Theory of Lev Vygotsky”

Between theoretical currents and philosophy

As we have seen, constructivism is a set of very heterogeneous ideas that are only united by a very broad nexus that is quite complicated to delimit. In other words, the concept of constructivism in psychology is broader than that of the definitions of typical psychological currents , such as behaviorism or cognitivism.

And, of course, it is perfectly possible that there are several theories that can be encompassed within constructivism and yet are hardly compatible with each other or can even be connected through applied psychology. In the end, being part of this bundle of theories does not imply using the same methods or the same tools , and there is nothing in the definition of constructivism that implies embracing several very concrete commitments about what has to be done and how it should be done.

The constructivism of psychology may be a set of theories, but it is a category so abstract that it is only one step away from entering the realm of philosophy. In fact, it is very easy for the way in which constructivism points out that the value of the systems of meaning that we create to generate knowledge have value in themselves to go from being a purely scientific position (and therefore useful to reach certain objectives) to a philosophical and moral position without us realizing it. Sometimes it can become a political discourse about how education should be based only on a certain scale of values in which the idea that students should have a lot of freedom occupies a high position.

A meta-psychology?

So if psychological constructivism is neither a philosophical position nor a psychological current, let alone a school of psychology, what is it? One way of answering this question would be to conclude that constructivism is simply a type of grouping of theories that, because of its amplitude, is between philosophy and the currents of psychology.

Another way of looking at it is to conclude that constructivism is a meta-psychology , something that is often said about psychoanalysis as well. That is to say, it would be a kind of step backwards that several psychologists and researchers have taken to see their field of work with a certain distance and from that position be able to make decisions about what to do and how to understand the individual, returning later to the work.

In any case, using one or other words to refer to the same thing, the important thing is that, in practice, constructivism has generated types of psychological and psychopedagogical interventions in which greater autonomy is given to students and patients, also promoting a personalised treatment that is necessary to understand the systems of meaning that each individual constructs. Of course, these contributions are not exempt from criticism, but it is clear that they have left a significant mark on the educational contexts of recent decades.

Bibliographic references:

  • Carretero, M. (1994) Constructivism and Education. Buenos Aires. Aique.
  • Norman, D. (1981) Perspectives of cognitive science. Barcelona. Paidós.
  • Piaget, J. (1985) Treatise on Logic and Scientific Knowledge: Nature and
    methods of epistemology. Vol. 1. Tr. M. Prelooker. Mexico. Paidós.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1977) Pensamiento y lenguaje. Buenos Aires: La Pléyade.