How is Knowledge Socially Constructed?

Constructivism is a theory of learning that argues that humans generate knowledge and meaning from an interaction between their experiences and their ideas. In other words, it is a theory of learning asserting that knowledge is not passively received (i.e. a lecture from a teacher), but is actively received (i.e. from a social interaction with others). Cooperative learning and group investigations model the constructivism theory because they allow for students to interact in ways that deepen their learning. It is a method that gives students the opportunities to be “organized into problem-solving groups that attack academic problems and are taught democratic procedures and scientific methods of inquiry as they proceed” (Joyce, 247). When engaged in this type of learning, students can “reflect up their newly acquired knowledge, process what they are learning by talking with and actively listening to their peers, and develop a common understanding about various topics” (Dean, p. 37). It allows students to arrive at a deeper understanding of material because they have talked through it, a process that “helps them retain what they learn” (Dean, p. 38).

I will reference John Medina’s brain research again in regards to working with others. In his Brain Rule pertaining to long-term memory, Medina discusses the power of repetition. He explains that the best way to put a piece of information to short-term, and eventually long-term memory, is to repeat it. When used with students, it is important to allow students to think, talk, and otherwise reflect socially about an event immediately after it has occurred to enhance the memory of that event (Medina, p. 131). In this case, we can refer to the “event” as the new piece of information. Medina continues by stating, “Memory is not fixed at the moment of learning, and repetition provides the fixative” (Medina, p. 146).

When children are learning together in cooperative groups, they are at a higher chance of improving their academic engagement (Dean 2012). They will want to learn more when they are involved in the process with their peers, rather than just being fed the knowledge from their teacher. All students come to the academic classroom with a different schema, which may help contribute to their knowledge of academic topics, which can then be relayed to others in social discussions, debates, and negotiations. It is with these negotiation tools that students study academic knowledge and engage in problem-solving (Joyce, p. 250). Learning alongside others can also help enhance connections that children have between events and prior knowledge. Cooperative learning also allows the teacher to set the stage for students to be responsible for their own learning (Dean 2012). This means that students will also be responsible for demonstrating their learning to others, which is where the “knowledge is socially constructed” can come into play. Being able to and having the skill to work well with others, including the ability to have an open mind enough to learn from others, allows individuals to be a positive member of a democratic society. “One must have great personal development to understand other people’s viewpoints” (Joyce, p. 248)—viewpoints that are critical to be able to thrive in a democratic society and problem-solve with others.

I experienced this teaching model just last week with my third-graders. We had been finishing up a large social studies unit in which students worked in small cooperative groups to invent a new culture. As a reflection, I asked my students why it was important that they created a money system with their new cultures. Almost immediately, we had at least two students with differing opinions and we were soon involved in a very lively classroom debate.  One student suggested we would have chaos with a money system and some suggested that without a money system, society members would be led into greediness. Still others argued that there should be other ways that members of society are “paid” and allowed to purchase goods. Questions developed such as “How do you determine who gets paid more in a society?” and “How do you determine who does which jobs?” and if everyone is paid equally, “Who gets the ‘good’ jobs and who gets the jobs that nobody wants?” The conversation that my students jumped into could not have happened if I simply had them write their answers down on paper. Allowing them to socially express their opinions and viewpoints not only allowed them to constructively argue the viewpoints of others, but to also learn different perspectives, new vocabulary, and think deeper about a concept (having a money system) that as a society, we rarely think about and question.

In conclusion, “knowledge is socially constructed” because students and individuals can learn better through others—through the social interactions that can be obtained when students take a problem and actively try to solve it while working alongside others in a cooperative group environment. Students build their academic knowledge on the topic by hearing opinions and viewpoints of others, but they also learn social knowledge by being in a situation where they must take into account the opinions and views of others. There is an “inescapable fact that life is social” (Joyce, p. 249). We must be able to effectively socialize with others in order to have a functioning society.

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