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International Education Journal, 2005, 6(3), 386-399. ISSN 1443-1475 © 2005 Shannon Research Press.


Vygotsky’s philosophy: Constructivism and its criticisms examined
Charlotte Hua Liu Graduate School of Education, Adelaide University, Australia Robert Matthews Graduate School of Education, Adelaide University, Criticisms have recently been voiced of constructivism, the leading metaphor of human learning since the 1970s. Inspired by inconsistencies in interpretations of constructivism in current literature, we examine the underlying epistemological beliefs of popular constructivist theories and their criticisms. We find that popular constructivist claims and criticisms, instead of beingbased on contrasting philosophical ideas, are similarly grounded on the dualist separatism of the human mind and the external world. We then present our interpretation of Vygotsky’s historical-dialectical-monist philosophy, through discussions of Vygotskyan concepts including social environment of learning, the role of language, and individual consciousness. The paper concludes that confusions aboutVygotsky’s theory often arise from concepts taken literally and from the lack of appreciation of the general philosophical orientation underpinning his works. Constructivism, criticisms, Vygotsky’s philosophy, historical-dialectical-monism, paradigmatic philosophy

INTRODUCTION Setting out to overcome the Cartesian mind-body dualism and the well-rehearsed debates between empiricism andrationalism, the constructivist metaphor of cognitive psychology emerged in the 1970s (Gergen, 1985); and since then, has been the buzzword in school education and teacher training in the western part of the world. It has been recognised as both a ‘paradigm’ as well as a ‘theory’ (Fosnot, 1996). With the increased attention, many variants emerged and nowadays one may talk of constructivism as a church oftheoretical accounts. Most recently, however, criticisms have appeared in the literature challenging constructivism across its church of views (see, for example, Fox, 2001, and Phillips, 1995). In his article The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly – The Many Faces Of Constructivism, Phillips (1995) challenged this dominant church of thinking. As we note criticisms are often of similar or connectednatures, our examination will focus on, in Phillips’ words, ‘the bad and the ugly’ aspects of constructivism. In short, Phillips praised constructivism for its emphasis on learners’ active participation and the heightened recognition given to the social nature of learning. The bad side of constructivism lies in its tendency towards epistemological relativism (including individual and social communityrelativism), which seems to be the major challenge that constructivists face (See also Fox, 2001; and Cobb, 1996 for similar criticism). Lastly, the ‘quasireligious or ideological aspect’ is identified as the ugly face of constructivism. The irony now appears to be that from the divergence of constructivist views has emerged a dualist position – the very position constructivism came into being toavoid. By arguing for individual or social

Liu and Matthews


construction of knowledge a Cartesian parallelism between individual and social idiosyncrasy has arisen. This is most clearly seen in popular accounts of constructivists and their recent critics. This paper starts with a brief summary of constructivism and its two main variants as found in the literature – thecognitive/radical and social/realist traditions, followed by an introduction of recent critiques. Then, we question the accuracy of popular secondary presentations of original authors’ thoughts, pointing out inconsistencies between interpretations. We attempt to tease out the internal-external separatism as the common ground that popular constructivism and its criticisms are based on. This is followed by an...
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