Constructivism and Science Education

The thesis of this book is that HPS can usefully be brought to bear on
theoretical, curricular and pedagogical issues in science teaching, and consequently that some learning of HPS should be a natural part of science-teacher
education programmes. The contribution of HPS to an evaluation of the
strengths and weaknesses of educational constructivism well illustrates the
Constructivism, as a theory of knowledge and learning, has been the major
theoretical influence in contemporary science and mathematics education
and, in its postmodernist and deconstructionist form, it is a significant influ –
ence in contemporary mathematics, literary, artistic, social studies and
religious education. Its impact is evident in theoretical debates, curriculum
construction and pedagogical practice in all of these subjects. Constructivism
as a psychological, educational and philosophical orientation fuels the learnercentred, teacher-as-facilitator, localist, ‘progressive’ side of the educational
maths wars, phonics debates and discovery-learning disputes. It was appealed
to in the hugely popular ‘Problem-Based Learning’ (PBL) curricula and
pedagogy that began at the McMaster University Medical School in 1969
and that, for 20 years, swept through US, UK, European and Australasian
medical training institutions (Colliver 2000, 2002, Neville 2009).1 PBL was
adopted by the World Federation of Medical Education in advance of any
empirical evidence that PBL-trained learners would become better doctors
(Neville 2009, p. 1). This was the same pattern as was evident in the formal
adoption of constructivism in science and mathematics education. As one
editorial in the Journal of Teacher Education declares:
Constructivism is the new rallying theme in education. Its popularity derives from
its origins in a variety of disciplines, notably philosophy of science, psychology,
and sociology. The implications of a constructivist perspective for education differ
depending on its disciplinary foundation, but professional education groups as
diverse as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have based revisions of their
standards for practice on the constructivist assumption that learners do not
passively absorb knowledge but rather construct it from their experiences.
(Ashton 1992, p. 322)
Chapter 8
The Rise and Fall of Constructivism
During the 1980s and 1990s, there were countless professional development
workshops, conference presentations, journal articles and books, all articulating constructivist theory and developing its pedagogical implications. This
is not the place for a detailed history of constructivism in education,2 but, to
justify the claim about its domination of educational theory in the last decades
of the twentieth century, it suffices to mention a few well-regarded review
Peter Fensham claimed that, ‘The most conspicuous psychological influence on curriculum thinking in science since 1980 has been the constructivist
view of learning’ (Fensham 1992, p. 801). A former president of the US
NARST said that: ‘A unification of thinking, research, curriculum develop –
ment, and teacher education appears to now be occurring under the theme of
construc tivism . . . there is a lack of polarised debate’ (Yeany 1991, p. 1).
Another past president of the same organisation wrote that:
There is a paradigm war waging in education. Evidence of conflict is seen in nearly
every facet of educational practice . . . [but] there is evidence of widespread
acceptance of alternatives to objectivism, one of which is constructivism.
(Tobin 1993, p. ix)
In 2000, two researchers quantified the impact of constructivism in educational
research and practice and reported that there were over 1,000 items in the
Education Resource Information Center (ERIC) database and:
As for the quantities of materials intended for or developed by practicing teachers,
a sense of their proliferation might be gleaned from the internet, where the hits
for ‘constructivism + education’ number in the tens or hundreds of thousands,
depending on the search engine used.
(Davis & Sumara 2003, p. 409)
The most recent version of the authoritative ‘constructivism and research’
bibliography, prepared by Reinders Duit and colleagues at the University of
Kiel, is available online and contains more than 1,000 entries (Duit 2009).
Duit says of the bibliography that:
This research has been carried out within what is called the constructivist view
including individual constructivist and social constructivist perspectives. The
bibliography may therefore now be viewed as an attempt to document con struc –
tivist research in science education.
Constructivist theory has had an impact on education way beyond the
confines of research journals and scholarly conferences that can be documented in ERIC searches; it is adopted as the ‘official’ pedagogical theory in
a number of countries, states and provinces. These include at least the
300 Constructivism and Science Education
following: Ontario Province of Canada, Thailand, Greece, Turkey, New
Zealand, India, Taiwan, Spain, the Australian state of Western Australia and
some states and school districts of the US; it is ubiquitous in North American
teacher education programmes.
Although seeming to sweep all before it, constructivism has had its critics:
a good many psychologists, philosophers, educators, teachers and parents
have raised their concerns over diverse parts of the constructivist programme.
From the outset, there have been philosophical criticisms3 and, more recently,
detailed criticism of its claims to being a guide for successful pedagogy.4
Pleasingly, there are signs that at least ‘serious’ or ‘radical’ constructivist
influence is waning, and that more realistic, limited and better-grounded
philosophical and instructional claims are being advanced in the name of
constructivism. Indeed, one prominent advocate has published an article titled,
‘Constructivism in Education: Moving On’ (Tobin 2000). Similarly, in medical
schools, PBL is moving on and out. One researcher concluded there was:
No convincing evidence that PBL improves the knowledge base and clinical
performance, at least not of the magnitude that would be expected given the
resources required for a PBL curriculum.
So, when enthusiasm for an educational programme, much less a ‘worldview’, goes from ‘winning a paradigm war’ to ‘moving on’, all within two
decades, it behoves researchers to take stock of why this has happened and
draw some lessons about the discipline of science education. What needs to
be overcome is the field’s propensity for importing philosophical, psychological
and political theories, while only minimally understanding them, and for
having enthusiasm substitute for conceptual coherence and empirical evidence.
Versions of Constructivism
Constructivism is a heterogeneous movement. One review has identified at
least the following varieties: contextual, dialectical, empirical, informationprocessing, methodological, moderate, Piagetian, post-epistemological, prag –
matic, radical, realist, social and socio-historical (Good et al. 1993). To this
list could be added humanistic constructivism (Cheung & Taylor 1991) and
didactic constructivism (van den Brink 1991). From its origins in develop –
mental psychology, constructivism has spread to encompass, often naively,
many domains of educational enquiry. The range of constructivist concerns
can be seen in the subheadings of one science-education article: ‘A Con –
structivist View of Learning’, ‘A Constructivist View of Teaching’, ‘A View
of Science’, ‘Aims of Science Education’, ‘A Constructivist View of Curriculum’
and ‘A Constructivist View of Curriculum Development’ (Bell 1991).
There are basically two major traditions of constructivism. The first is
psychological constructivism, originating with Jean Piaget’s account of chil –
dren’s learning as a process of personal, individual, intellectual construction
Constructivism and Science Education 301
arising from their activity in the world. This tradition bifurcates into, on the
one hand, the more personal, subjective tradition of Piaget that can be seen
in von Glasersfeld’s work, and, on the other hand, into the social construc –
tivism of the Russian Vygotsky and his followers, who stress the importance
of language communities for the cognitive constructions of individuals, as
can be seen in the work of Duckworth (1996), Gergen (1994, 1999) and Lave
The second major tradition is sociological constructivism, originating
with Emile Durkheim and augmented by sociologists of culture such as
Peter Berger and, more recently, by sociologists of science in the Edinburgh
School, such as Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Harry Collins and Bruno Latour.
This sociological tradition maintains that scientific knowledge is socially
constructed and vindicated, and it investigates the circumstances and dynamics
of science’s construction. In contrast to Piaget and Vygotsky, it ignores the
individual psychological mechanisms of belief construction and focuses upon
the extra-individual social circumstances that, it claims, determine the beliefs
of individuals; the individual becomes a sort of ‘black box’ for the theory.
Extreme forms of sociological constructivism claim that science is nothing but
a form of human cognitive construction, comparable to artistic or literary
construction, and having no particular claim to truth; dominant theories are
the theories of dominant scientists.5
For many, constructivism has ceased being just a learning theory, or even
an educational theory, but rather it constitutes a worldview, or Weltan schau –
6 as suggested in remarks such as:
To become a constructivist is to use constructivism as a referent for thoughts
and actions. That is to say when thinking or acting, beliefs associated with
constructivism assume a higher value than other beliefs. For a variety of reasons
the process is not easy.
(Tobin 1991, p. 1)
The Constructivist Foundations website identifies the common features of
all constructivist positions as being as follows:7
• Constructivist approaches question the Cartesian separation between
objective world and subjective experience.
• Consequently, they demand the inclusion of the observer in scientific
• Representationalism is rejected; knowledge is a system-related cognitive
process rather than a mapping of an objective world on to subjective
cognitive structures.
• According to constructivist approaches, it is futile to claim that knowledge
approaches reality; reality is brought forth by the subject rather than
passively received.
302 Constructivism and Science Education
• Constructivist approaches entertain an agnostic relationship with reality,
which is considered beyond our cognitive horizon; any reference to it
should be refrained from.
• Therefore, the focus of research moves from the world that consists of
matter to the world that consists of what matters.
• Constructivist approaches focus on self-referential and organisationally
closed systems; such systems strive for control over their inputs rather
than their outputs.
• With regard to scientific explanations, constructivist approaches favour
a process-oriented approach rather than a substance-based perspective,
e.g. living systems are defined by processes whereby they constitute and
maintain their own organisation.
• Constructivist approaches emphasise the ‘individual as personal scientist’
approach; sociality is defined as accommodating within the framework
of social interaction.
• Finally, constructivist approaches ask for an open and less dogmatic
approach to science, in order to generate the flexibility that is needed to
cope with today’s scientific frontier.
It should be clear that the appraisal of each of these foundations of con –
structivism requires some competence in HPS; it is the latter that the claims
are about. Philosophers would regard most of the above claims as being
unintelligible, false or at best highly contentious. However, many educators
‘take them on board’ in an entirely naive and ill-informed manner, and they
build educational edifices, curricula and teaching practices upon them.
Constructivism as Psychology and Philosophy
Constructivism is standardly presented as both as a theory of learning (a
psychological theory) and a theory of knowledge (a philosophical, and
specifically epistemological, theory). It is self-consciously a composite theory.
A typical account of the theory is given by Catherine Fosnot in a much-cited
constructivist anthology:
Constructivism is a theory about knowledge and learning; it describes both what
‘knowing’ is and how one ‘comes to know’. Based on work in psychology,
philosophy, science and biology, the theory describes knowledge not as truths to
be transmitted or discovered, but as emergent, developmental, non-objective,
viable constructed explanations by humans engaged in meaning-making in cultural
and social communities of discourse. Learning from this perspective is viewed as
a self-regulatory process of struggling with the conflict between existing personal
models of the world and discrepant new insights, constructing new representations
and models of reality as a human meaning-making venture with culturally devel –
oped tools and symbols, and further negotiating such meaning through cooperative
social activity, discourse, and debate in communities of practice.
Constructivism and Science Education 303
Although constructivism is not a theory of teaching, it suggests taking a radically
different approach to instruction from that used in most schools.
(Fosnot 2005, p. ix)
This characterisation of constructivism as being a composite of learning
theory (psychology) with theory of knowledge (philosophy) is apparent in the
writing of the founders of educational constructivism – Piaget, Vygotsky and
Bruner. Piaget called his own theory ‘Genetic Epistemology’, and this
philosophical concern is reflected in the title of one of his books – Psychology
and Epistemology (Piaget 1972). Jerome Bruner, speaking of his famous The
Process of Education book (Bruner 1960), which presented a constructivist
alternative to didactic, transmissionist, behaviourist-informed ‘banking’
pedagogy, wrote that:
Its ideas sprang from epistemology and the sciences of knowing . . . all of us were,
I think, responding to the same ‘epistemic’ malaise, the doubts about the nature
of knowing that had come first out of the revolution in physics and then been
formalized and amplified by philosophy.
(Bruner 1983, p. 186)
Clearly, claims, of whatever kind, about the impact on epistemology of the
revolution in physics are matters for historians and philosophers of science
to appraise. And they have done so. Educators, of necessity, are thrust into
this field and need to be cognisant of at least its contours.
It is important to recognise a persistent ambiguity in the constructivist
linking of learning theory to epistemology. The founders of constructivism
regarded epistemology seriously, as a philosophical endeavour; they offered
accounts of what constitutes human knowledge and how knowledge claims
were compared and tested. Subsequently, however, many in the constructivist
tradition simply collapse epistemology into psychology and, although they talk
about studying the acquisition of knowledge, they really mean studying the
acquisition of beliefs. One such example occurs in a recent book of Andreas
Quale, Radical Constructivism (Quale 2008). Quale says learning is the
process through which we gain knowledge, and knowledge is the product of
the learning process (p. 45). He of course recognises, with Plato and the bulk
of the philosophical and common-sensical tradition, that ‘it is possible to learn
things that are not true’ (p. 45), but this is not a bother to him, because ‘such
an association of knowledge with truth is not made in constructivism’ (p. 45).
However, merely saying that there is no problem in identifying learning with
knowledge does not mean that there is none. In children’s books, a threat
might go away because a person closes their eyes, but this comforting event
seldom happens in the real world, or in the world of philosophical argument.
On the basis of ‘armchair’ psychology, one can assert that the neurological
and psychological processes whereby knowledge is acquired are the same as
those processes whereby ignorance is acquired. Learning is truth-neutral: one
304 Constructivism and Science Education
can equally learn good and bad habits, reasonable and unreasonable opinions,
true and false beliefs. Over time, and perhaps even in the present, the bulk of
what humans have learned about the world, their societies and perhaps even
themselves has been false (think how many people believed, and still believe,
the sun rotates around the earth; how many US citizens believe in Special
Creation; how many US citizens believe the Iraq invasion was about spreading
democracy, and so on), and any decent learning theory will account for this
For a psychologist of learning, the learning of Islam in a Pakistani mosque,
the learning of Judaism in a Yeshiva, the learning of Roman Catholicism in
a seminary, the learning of Marxism–Leninism in a Politburo training school
will all be considered cases of learning a subject matter. The neurological,
psychological and behavioural processes of learning the particular content will
be the same in all cases: learning Islam will be the same as learning Christianity.
The psychological processes involved in becoming a Republican are going to
be pretty much the same as becoming a Democrat (or whatever the local
political options might be). The processes of learning Creation science and of
learning Darwinian science will be the same. The psychologist, as learning
theorist, has no special interest in appraising the truthfulness or adequacy of
what is learned. A clinical psychologist might have such an interest, and
hopefully they would, but the learning theorist need not have such interest in
the epistemological status of what is learned.
Likewise, theories of teaching will be subject matter blind: there can be good
teachers of falsehoods as well as of truths, of ideology as well as of science;
the characteristics of both will be the same. Goebbels could not be faulted for
being a bad teacher: what he taught was bad, but his teaching was good.8
However, for science education, psychology needs to be linked to and
informed by philosophy. In science classes, it is putative truths about the world
that are being taught, and it is rational learning that is sought.9 Understanding
what constitutes truth and rationality is a philosophical endeavour, and HPS
has an important contribution to the educator’s deliberations.
An Evidential Dilemma
There is a clear ‘evidential dilemma’ for constructivists who try to support
their theory by empirical research. On the one hand, they wish to appeal to
the nature of cognitive realities (learning processes) and epistemological
realities (especially the history of science) to support their pedagogical,
curricular and epistemological proposals. Yet, on the other hand, they say that
such realities cannot be known, or are forever inaccessible to us. For many
constructivists, reality collapses into the completely subjective ‘my experience
of reality’.10
Thus, one researcher, who champions ‘socio-transformative constructivism’
and who supports the position with a study of eighteen students in a secondary
science-methods class, is impelled to remark that:
Constructivism and Science Education 305
Note that by using the term empirical evidence, I am not taking a realist or
empiricist stance, nor any other Western orientation. I use the term ‘empirical
evidence’ with the understanding that knowledge is socially constructed and
always partial. By ‘empirical evidence’ I mean that information was systematically
gathered and exposed to a variety of methodology checks. Hence in this study I
do not pretend to capture the real world of the research participants (realism),
nor do I pretend to capture their experiential world (empiricism). What I do
attempt is to provide spaces where the participants’ voices and subjectivities are
represented along with my own voice and subjectivities.
(Rodriguez 1998, p. 618)
One can get the general drift of what is being asserted here, namely that there
is no ‘uncontested’ evidence, but, instead of trying to get more adequate
evidence, the author proposes that research should: ‘provide spaces where the
participants’ voices and subjectivities are represented along with my own
voice and subjectivities’. As a guide to educational research, this is completely
opaque and positively invites a massive Hawthorne effect into every piece of
research; indeed, if the effect is not there, then the research has been poorly
(positivistically) conducted. One can understand the reluctance of funding
bodies to finance the creation of such spaces when real problems abound.11
Unfortunately, such mystification has become the coin of the constructivist
research realm and, more broadly, of the educational research realm; the
latter being firmly established with the widely embraced research handbooks
of Yvonna Lincoln and Ergon Guba (Guba and Lincoln 1989, Lincoln and
Guba 1985). The authors write of the second that:
The constructivist paradigm is espoused by the authors and shown to offer
multiple advantages, including empowerment and enfranchisement of stakeholders, as well as an action orientation that defines a course to be followed. Not
merely a treatise on evaluation theory, Guba and Lincoln also comprehensively
describe the differences between the positivist and constructivist paradigms of
research, and provide a practical plan of the steps and processes in conducting a
fourth generation evaluation.
(Guber & Lincoln 1989, back cover)
Constructivist Epistemology and Its Problems
Constructivism emphasises that science is a creative human endeavour that is
historically and culturally conditioned, and that its knowledge claims are not
absolute. This is certainly worth saying, but it is a truism shared by most
philosophers and historians of science. Beyond this truism, constructivism is
committed to certain epistemological positions that are widely disputed
and rejected; given the educational influence of the doctrine, these warrant
close scrutiny. At their core, both personal and social constructivism have a
306 Constructivism and Science Education
subjectivist and empiricist understanding of human knowledge and, consequently, of scientific knowledge. As one of the most influential constructivists
in science and mathematics education has put it:
Knowledge is the result of an individual subject’s constructive activity, not a
commodity that somehow resides outside the knower and can be conveyed or
instilled by diligent perception or linguistic communication.
(von Glasersfeld 1990a, p. 37)
Since Plato, no one has thought that knowledge comes just from looking, even
diligent looking. As Plato remarked, ‘We see through the eye, not with the
eye’. But, equally clearly, knowledge can and must be conveyed by linguistic
communication.12 Each time one asks directions to a café or a restroom in a
new town, knowledge is conveyed linguistically from the local who has it to
the out-of-towner who does not have it: ‘take the second on the right and go
along 50 metres’. Knowing how might be difficult to transmit linguistically,
but knowing that can only be transmitted linguistically.13 When obvious
realities are denied, it is a signal that the person is captured by an ideology.
Some extracts from various sources can give a sense of the epistemological
and ontological positions adopted by constructivists in science education;
they are all variants of a subject-centred, empiricist theory of knowledge:
Although we may assume the existence of an external world we do not have direct
access to it; science as public knowledge is not so much a discovery as a carefully
checked construction.
(Driver & Oldham 1986, p. 109)
Put into simple terms, constructivism can be described as essentially a theory about
the limits of human knowledge, a belief that all knowledge is necessarily a product
of our own cognitive acts. We can have no direct or unmediated knowledge of
any external or objective reality. We construct our understanding through our
experiences, and the character of our experience is influenced profoundly by our
cognitive lens.
(Confrey 1990, p. 108)
Steven Lerman (1989), following Kilpatrick (1987) and, earlier, von
Glasersfeld, suggests that the core epistemological theses of constructivism are
as follows:
1 Knowledge is actively constructed by the cognising subject, not passively
received from the environment.
2 Coming to know is an adaptive process that organises one’s experiential
world; it does not discover an independent, preexisting world outside the
mind of the knower.
Constructivism and Science Education 307
All constructivists are epistemological relativists: To deny that one account
or theory can be better than another (with ‘better’ inevitably placed in scare
quotes by constructivists) and, likewise, to deny that one account might be
more true than another simply go with the constructivist territory.14 Such
relativism has its philosophical problems.15 Clearly, lots of different things
can make sense to people, and people can disagree about whether a particular
proposition makes sense to them or does not make sense. The ways in which
a proposition can make sense is independent of the reference of the proposition; matters about the truth of a proposition are not so liberal: they depend
upon how the world is and what claims we make about it. Consequently,
‘making sense’ is a very unstable plank with which to prop up curriculum
proposals and adjudicate debates about curriculum content.
Furthermore, most scientific advances have entailed commitment to
propositions that literally defied sense – Copernicus’s rotating Earth, Galileo’s
point masses and colourless bodies; Newton’s inertial systems that, in
principle, cannot be experienced and also his ideas of action at a distance;
Darwin’s gradualist evolutionary assumptions, so at odds with the fossil
record; Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence and so forth. Indeed, the topic of
pendulum motion, as we have seen, exhibits the problems with using ‘making
sense’ as a goal and arbiter in science education. In the theoretical object of
classical mechanics, the bob at its highest point is both at rest and accelerating
with the acceleration of gravity; at its lowest point, it is moving with maximum
speed in a tangential direction, and yet its acceleration is vertically upwards.
Neither of these propositions makes immediate sense, and yet they are
consequences of the physical theory that allows construction of the pendulum
clock and successful predictions to be made about the behaviour of the real,
material objects that constitute pendulums. Within the Newtonian theory of
circular motion, the propositions ‘make sense’. But the theory does not emerge
from sensations, and, not only is it not traceable to experience, but it
contradicts immediate experience and is only roughly in accord with refined,
experimental experience. This is why Wolpert, among others, comments that,
‘if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn’t science . . .
the way in which the universe works is not the way in which common sense
works’ (Wolpert 1992, p. 11).
Flowing directly from constructivism’s individualistic empiricism is the
neglect of the inherently social aspect of scientific development. It is not just
that individuals are dependent upon others for their language and conceptual
furniture, but, as far as science is concerned, the growth of scientific
understanding goes hand in hand with initiation into a scientific tradition, a
tradition within which point masses and instantaneous accelerations make
sense. A valuable tradition is passed on, not reinvented by each generation.
There are serious educational questions posed by the business of selecting those
aspects of a tradition worthy of transmission, and the processes whereby they
are passed on. However, these questions only arise and can be addressed if
this apprenticeship dimension of education is recognised. Subjective, or
308 Constructivism and Science Education
psychological, constructivism only dimly recognises this. Social constructivism
sees it more clearly, but then needs to address the epistemological or normative
elements in the social construction of knowledge.
Children’s thoughts are private, but their concepts are public. Whether or
not particular thoughts are going to constitute knowledge is not a matter for
the individual to determine; or rather, if they do so determine, then it is
against a public standard. These, and other considerations, led D.W. Hamlyn
to say:
Any view which in effect construes the child as a solitary inquirer attempting to
discover the truth about the world must be rejected. (What after all could be meant
by ‘truth’ in these circumstances?)
(Hamlyn 1973, p. 184)
It is usually teachers who mediate between students and this public standard.
Without such public criteria, the word ‘knowledge’ is reducible to ‘belief’.
What constitutes knowledge and what makes a claim knowledgeable are
issues of great epistemological and political importance. In the facile personal
constructivist view of knowledge, these questions evaporate. For social
constructivism, they also evaporate, but just more slowly: What will be the
social group whose agreement will make some proposition an item of
Relativism is one problem, and serious enough for science teachers, but of
orders more serious is when constructivism segues into complete scepticism,
the view that we cannot have any knowledge of nature, its structure or
properties. This is not scepticism about any particular claim (that a gremlin
ate the student’s essay), but global scepticism about all claims concerning the
world. Constructivists constantly assert that we have no direct access to
reality, that reality remains forever hidden. Antonio Bettencourt, for example,
puts the matter this way: ‘constructivism, like idealism, maintains that we are
cognitively isolated from the nature of reality. . . . Our knowledge is, at best,
a mapping of transformations allowed by that reality’ (Bettencourt, 1993,
p. 46). Leaving aside the problem of understanding what is meant by the
second half of the claim, the first half – ‘cognitive isolation’ – resonates
throughout constructivist writing.
Cognitive isolation from the world is a fundamental tenet of Ernst von
Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism. It is affirmed in just about all of his
publications, with one clear statement being:
To claim true knowledge of the world, you would have to be certain that the
picture you compose on the basis of your perceptions and conceptions is in every
respect a true representation of the world as it really is. But in order to be certain
that it is a good match, you should be able to compare the representation to what
Constructivism and Science Education 309
it is supposed to represent. This, however you cannot do, because you cannot
step out of your human ways of perceiving and conceiving.
(von Glasersfeld 1995, p. 26)
Philip Kitcher calls this assertion the The Inaccessibility of Reality Argument,
or IRA for short. He says of it that: ‘the IRA is a terrorist weapon which antirealists employ with enormous confidence’ (Kitcher 2001, p. 156). It has, of
course, been utilised by many in the philosophic tradition: the British
empiricists, continental idealists, logical positivists and, more recently, Nelson
Goodman, Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty. So the constructivist recourse
to IRA is not without honourable pedigree.
However, there have also been equally honourable opponents of IRA in
philosophy. The opposing, ‘common-sense realism’ view was nicely stated by
Moritz Schlick, in 1935. Against Carnap and Neurath, his fellow positivists,
he stated:
I have been accused of maintaining that statements can be compared with facts.
I plead guilty. I have maintained this. But I protest against my punishment: I refuse
to sit in the seat of the metaphysicians. I have often compared propositions to
facts; so I had no reason to suppose that it couldn’t be done. I found, for instance,
in my Baedeker the statement: ‘this cathedral has two spires’. I was able to
compare it with ‘reality’ by looking at the cathedral, and this comparison
convinced me that Baedeker’s assertion was true.
(Schlick 1935, pp. 65–66, in Nola 2003, p. 146)
Schlick’s ‘tourist’ argument, of course, applies at the next level down. Viruses,
bacteria, molecules and a host of microscopic entities were once only
postulated and were indeed inaccessible to scientists and everyone else, but,
with refined technology, they become as visible to students in laboratories as
were Schlick’s cathedral spires to the tourist walking through town, or, now,
the details of the Moon’s surface. The IRA thesis is not as ‘uncontestable’ as
constructivists make it out to be; it has been contested and found severely
Constructivist Ontology and Its Problems
Constructivists often embrace an idealist ontology, or idealist theory about
the existential status of scientific and everyday objects; that is, they variously
maintain that the world is created by, and dependent upon, human thought.
Various Kuhn-inspired sociologists of science repeatedly state that different
observers ‘live in different worlds’ and that they create those worlds. These
astounding claims pass over the major ambiguity: on the one hand, the
complete truism that different observers and different groups have different
experiences; on the other, that the world in which they live varies from
observer to observer and group to group. The latter is not a truism and
requires some argument, as does the more advanced claim that these various
310 Constructivism and Science Education
worlds are created by the observer. Kenneth Gergen, an influential social
constructivist, expresses this position, saying there is: ‘a multiplicity of ways
in which “the world” is, and can be, constructed’ (Gergen 1994, p. 82). Karin
Knorr-Cetina’s formulation is:
It is the thrust of the constructivist conception to conceive of scientific reality as
progressively emerging out of indeterminacy and (self-referential) constructive
operations, without assuming it to match any pre-existing order of the real.
(Knorr-Cetina 1983, p. 135)
Educational Idealism
Ernst von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism is the best-known idealist
variant in educational circles. He says:
The realist believes his constructs to be a replica or reflection of independently
existing structures, while the constructivist remains aware of the experiencer’s role
as originator of all structures . . . for the constructivist there are no structures other
than those which the knower constitutes by his very own activity of coordination
of experiential particles.
(von Glasersfeld 1987, p. 104)
As will be detailed in Chapter 9, realists need not make any such claims about
‘replication’ and ‘reflection’; they indeed make claims about the world, but
recognise that ‘there is more to seeing than meets the eyeball’, and the claims
are the outcome of social, personal and cultural circumstance.
Elsewhere, von Glasersfeld writes:
I can no more walk through the desk in front of me than I can argue that black
is white at one and the same time. What constrains me, however, is not quite the
same thing in the two cases. That the desk constitutes an obstacle to my physical
movement is due to the particular distinctions my sensor system enables me to
make and to the particular way in which I have come to coordinate them. Indeed,
if I now could walk through the desk, it would no longer fit the abstraction I have
made in prior experience.
(von Glasersfeld 1990b, p. 24)
This argument is flawed, and obviously so. For the realist, the inability of our
body to ‘walk through’ another body has nothing to do with our sensory
powers, but everything to do with the composition and structures of the
bodies. Changing our sensory powers will no more allow us to walk through
a hitherto impenetrable table than changing our shirt would allow us to do
so. Upon dying, we lose all sensory powers, but this does not mean our body
can then penetrate a table. Our having or not having sensory powers makes
no difference to the penetrability of the table; to think that it does is just
philosophical idealism.
Constructivism and Science Education 311
John Staver, a deservedly prominent science educator, stated the ontological
idealist position as follows:
For constructivists, observations, objects, events, data, laws, and theory do not
exist independently of observers. The lawful and certain nature of natural
phenomena are properties of us, those who describe, not of nature, that is
(Staver 1998, p. 503)
Again, this is a flawed position. Observations and theory clearly depend upon
us, but not the objects observed, nor their structures. Philosophical alarm bells
should ring when an author runs together ‘observations’ with ‘events’ and
‘objects’. For a realist, and for any serious scientist, there are categorical
differences between these classes. Only a philosophical idealist can run them
together without alarm bells ringing, and, when they ring, the idealist case
has to be argued, not just assumed.
Rosalind Driver, a rightly famous and influential science educator, frequently affirmed the idealist position. For instance she wrote:
Science as public knowledge is not so much a ‘discovery’ as a carefully checked
‘construction’ . . . and that scientists construct theoretical entities (magnetic fields,
genes, electron orbitals . . .) which in turn take on a ‘reality’.
(Driver 1988, p. 137)
Here, it is being said that the Earth does not have a structure until geophysicists
impose it; there is not an evolutionary structure in the animal world until
biologists impose such structure; atoms have no structure until such is imposed
by physicists; and so on. One might ask: if gravity waves are our creation,
why spend so much time and money looking for them?
Despite Driver’s basic argument form being fallacious, it is nevertheless
widespread. The argument has the form:
Premise: Some concept is a human construction.
Conclusion: Therefore, the referent of the concept does not exist.
One only has to state this argument to see that it is an invalid inference, and
its validity depends upon making explicit a suppressed premise of the form:
Suppressed premise: All concepts that are human constructions can have no
existential reference.
But this suppressed premise is simply dogma for which no evidence is provided.
Not only are ‘electron orbitals’ and ‘magnetic fields’ human constructions,
but so also are ‘my house’, ‘mountain’, ‘table’ and all the other observational
terms we use. If the foregoing widespread constructivist argument, utilised by
312 Constructivism and Science Education
Rosalind Driver, were valid, then not only would electron orbitals not exist,
neither would our house, nor the tables in it, nor mountains that we might
live near. Indeed, given that the personal pronoun ‘I’ is a human construction,
individual cognising subjects might not exist. However, such considerations
are frequently dismissed as ‘philosophical quibbles’.
Sociological Idealism
The ontological idealism here embraced by educational constructivists mirrors
and is encouraged by a comparable idealism common among new-style, postMertonian sociologists of science, particularly those associated with the
Edinburgh School.17 The influential sociologist Emile Durkheim had written,
in 1955, that:
If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object; and the
only way to attain this goal is to accord it a reality that it has to make or construct
itself. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a given reality,
but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no
longer be assessed by reference to objects but must be determined by the degree
of their utility, their more or less ‘advantageous character’.
(Durkheim 1972, p. 251)
This idealism has been carried through by the Edinburgh School. Latour
and Woolgar at one point say that, ‘“out-there-ness” is the consequence of
scientific work rather than its cause’ (Latour & Woolgar 1986, p. 182). They
go on to say that reality is the consequence rather than the cause of scientific
construction. And they also assert that, ‘there is little to be gained by
maintaining the distinction between the “politics” of science and its “truth”’
(Latour & Woolgar 1986, p. 237). Other contributors to the Edinburgh
programme say such things as, the planets are ‘cultural objects’ (Lynch et al.
1983). Harry Collins says that, ‘the natural world has a small or non-existent
role in the construction of scientific knowledge’ (Collins 1981, p. 3). Woolgar
embraces idealism, saying that his research programme,
is consistent with the position of the idealist wing of ethnomethodology that there
is no reality independent of the words (texts, signs, documents, and so on) used
to apprehend it. In other words, reality is constituted in and through discourse.
(Woolgar 1986, p. 312)
One can see here a confusion between ideas of real and theoretical objects,
and between physical and intellectual activity. All realists acknowledge that
reality does not just imprint itself on the mind of scientists or observers; few
have been so ignorant as to hold the ‘reflection’ or ‘imprinting’ theory of
knowledge so frequently ascribed to them in education texts. Science does not
deal with real objects per se, but with real objects as they are depicted by the
theoretical apparatus of science – falling coloured balls become point masses
Constructivism and Science Education 313
with specified accelerations, fields of peas become phenotypes of particular
descriptions, bubbling solutions become chemical equations and so on. An
enormous amount of intellectual effort on the part of the tradition of scientists,
and of individual scientists, goes into creating these theoretical objects, with
their concepts of forces, masses, genes, cells, species, equilibrium conditions
and so on. The fact that the theoretical apparatus is humanly constructed,
and that natural objects are only considered in theoretical dress, does not imply
that the real objects are human creations, or that the real objects have no
part in the appraisal of the scientific worth of the conceptual structures
brought to bear upon them.
The common constructivist move is from premises stating that knowledge
is a human creation, that it is historically and culturally bound, and that it is
not absolute, to the conclusion that knowledge claims are either unfounded
or relativist. Usain Bolt’s sprinting ability is undoubtedly genetically and
culturally bound, but from this we need not draw the conclusion that he
is not the world’s fastest timed sprinter. Nor does the recognition that this is
not an absolute claim (who knows what unrecognised and untimed sprinters
might be around) mean that we cannot have confidence in the claim that Bolt
is faster than any known alternative. In athletics, sensible fallibilism lies
between absolutism and relativism; so too in science and in most other
judgemental matters.
More than 20 years ago, Wallis Suchting provided a detailed, philosophically informed, line-by-line critique of von Glasersfeld’s hugely popular version
of constructivism, concluding that:
First, much of the doctrine known as ‘constructivism’ . . . is simply unintelligible.
Second, to the extent that it is intelligible . . . it is simply confused. Third, there
is a complete absence of any argument for whatever positions can be made out.
. . . In general, far from being what it is claimed to be, namely, the New Age in
philosophy of science, an even slightly perceptive ear can detect the familiar voice
of a really quite primitive, traditional subjectivistic empiricism with some
overtones of diverse provenance like Piaget and Kuhn.
(Suchting, 1992, p. 247)
The critique was ignored, and the constructivist caravan moved on.
Constructivist Pedagogy and Its Problems
Most constructivists see a connection between constructivist theories of
learning and knowledge on the one hand and pedagogical direction for teachers
on the other. Constructivist learning theory has transposed into mathematics,
literacy and science pedagogy. This is why constructivism has become so
widely adopted in teacher education programmes around the world. One
response to criticism of constructivist theory is to say that, although the
theory might be poorly articulated and might even be psychologically and
314 Constructivism and Science Education
philosophically problematic, nevertheless, constructivist pedagogy is valuable
and should be supported (Grandy 1997). This position is understandable, but
it rests on a moot point: how efficacious is constructivist pedagogy in teaching
any subject, but especially science? A good deal of research says that it is not
very effective at all.
Characteristics of Constructivist Teaching
There are many constructivist-inspired, student-centred teaching methods that
include project learning, discovery learning and enquiry teaching. One of the
most prominent constructivists in mathematics education informs teachers
In constructivism, a zone of potential construction of a specific mathematical
concept is determined by the modifications of the concept children might make
in, or as a result of, interactive communication in the mathematical learning
(Steffe 1992, p. 261)
This thirty-four-word sentence is typical of much constructivist writing:
clearly, more needs be added before this advice can be ‘operationalised’ or
even made intelligible. Two leading constructivists in science education provide
one expansion of the pedagogical advice. Driver and Oldham (1986) describe
constructivist teaching as embodying a number of stages or steps:
1 Orientation, where pupils are given the opportunity to develop a sense
of purpose and motivation for learning the topic.
2 Elicitation, during which pupils make their current ideas on the topic of
the lesson clear. This can be achieved by a variety of activities, such as
group discussion, designing posters or writing.
3 Restructuring of ideas: this is the heart of the constructivist lesson
sequence. It consists of a number of stages, including:
• clarification and exchange of ideas, during which pupils’ meanings
and language may be sharpened up by contrast with other, and
possibly conflicting, points of view held by other students or
contributed by the teacher;
• construction of new ideas in the light of the above discussions and
demonstrations; students here can see that there are a variety of ways
of interpretating phenomena or evidence;
• evaluation of the new ideas, either experimentally or by thinking
through their implications; students should try to figure out the best
ways of testing the alternative ideas; students may at this stage feel
dissatisfied with their existing conceptions.
4 Application of ideas, where pupils are given the opportunity to use their
developed ideas in a variety of situations, both familiar and novel.
Constructivism and Science Education 315
5 Review is the final stage, in which students are invited to reflect back on
how their ideas have changed by drawing comparisons between their
thinking at the start of the lesson sequence and their thinking at the end.
Driver and Oldham liken the final, review stage to the learning-aboutlearning emphasis that Joseph Novak and Bob Gowin (Novak & Gowin
1984) claim should be a part of all teaching. That is, as they learn material,
students should, at the same time, be learning something about the process
of effective learning; this has also been referred to as ‘metacognition’ (White
& Gunstone 1989). It is important to recognise that such ‘metacognition’
should be both psychological (how is something best learned?) and epistemological (what makes the learned material knowledge?). Often, the second
dimension is overlooked or just assumed. Attention to it can be seen in the
educational research tradition of ‘personal epistemology’.18
Clearly, such research needs be informed by the tradition of philosophical
epistemology, otherwise mistaken claims (leaving aside the weasel ‘may be’
qualifiers) such as the following can too glibly be made:
The constructivist mode of learning may be associated with teachers having
sophisticated epistemologies, and an orientation to the traditional/transmissive
conception may be reflective of teachers holding naive epistemologies associated
with omniscient authority and certain knowledge.
(Chan & Elliot 2004, p. 819)
Elsewhere, ‘epistemological development’ scales are constructed to measure
the efficacy of particular pedagogical strategies or interventions, and the
constructivist end is labelled ‘mature’, and the realist end is labelled ‘immature’
(Guba & Lincoln 1989)! Some researchers, who seemingly mistake indoctrination for education, give ‘realist’ students explicit ‘write-this-down’ lessons
on constructivism when their conversion has not occurred in the normal
course of constructivist facilitation:
If the epistemological development is partly a factor of age, then we could simply
wait for the students to become constructivists, the most mature epistemological
commitment. . . . However simply exposing students to an environment in which
constructivist epistemology is implicit may not be sufficient.
(Roth & Roychoudhury 1994, p. 28)19
Curriculum Planning
Driver and Oldham go on to say that constructivist curriculum planners
cannot adopt the standard model of a passive student, an active teacher and
the curriculum as something the latter transmits to the former. Two changes
required are that the curriculum is not seen as a body of knowledge or
skills, but the programme of activities from which such knowledge or skills
can possibly be acquired or constructed; and also that there is to be a shift
316 Constructivism and Science Education
in the status of the curriculum from that which is determined prior to
teaching (though negotiable between adults), to something with a problematic
These comments illustrate a problem with constructivism: it frequently
overreaches itself. It uses claims about learning processes and developmental
psychology (the original heart of constructivism) to establish wider educational
and social positions. The curriculum, for instance, does not flow from learning
theory alone. Learning theory may indicate how something should be
taught, but what and how much should be taught and to whom follow from
different or additional considerations. Among these are judgements of social
needs, personal needs, the relevant merits of different domains of knowledge
and experience and, finally, due political decision-making. Constructivists
frequently ignore, or implicitly assume, such considerations in extrapolating
from learning theory to curriculum matters, and to educational theory more
The Driver and Oldham claims, for instance, do not cast much light upon
the difficult matter of curriculum development. Their move from rejecting the
curriculum as a body of knowledge or skills, to saying it is a programme of
activities from which such knowledge and skills might be acquired does not
do away with the need to specify such knowledge or skills; it merely ‘kicks
the task down the road’, as politicians might say. It is ambiguous to say that
the curriculum has a problematic status. It may be problematic whether
particular components are in the curriculum, but this is another truism, as
there is always debate about the contents of the curriculum – will the
Depression be included in a history curriculum? However, it does not follow
from this truism that specific contents are problematic. It may be problematic
whether geometry is included in high-school mathematics, but it does not
follow from this alone that geometry is problematic.
Other constructivists endorse the work of educational critical theorists,
such as Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren and others. Jane Gilbert,
for instance, says: ‘There are many parallels between the literature on the
development of critical pedagogy [and] the literature on constructivist learning’
(Gilbert 1993, p. 35). This is, in part, because critical theorists, ‘question the
value of such concepts as individualism, efficiency, rationality and objectivity,
and the forms of curriculum and pedagogy that have developed from these
concepts (Gilbert 1993, p. 20).
Just why non-conformity, inefficiency, irrationality and subjectivity should
be valued in science education we are not told; but such endorsement of
critical theory is frequently done without engagement with the serious criticism
levelled against the theory in broader education circles. Francis Schrag, a
former president of the US Philosophy of Education Society (PES), criticised
Giroux’s work saying: ‘The article [Giroux’s] shows respect neither for logic
nor the English language, nor for the cause it avows, democracy’ (Schrag 1988,
p. 143). Schrag cites, as an example of Giroux’s style, one sentence that
warrants full reproduction:
Constructivism and Science Education 317
In this case, the notion of voice is developed around a politics of difference and
community that is not rooted in simply a celebration of plurality, but rather in a
particular form of human community that encourages and dignifies plurality as
part of an ongoing effort to develop social relations in which all voices in their
differences become unified in their efforts to identify and recall moments of human
suffering and the need to overcome the conditions that perpetuate such suffering.
As will be shown in Chapter 12, this sentence is unfortunately representative
of much constructivist, postmodernist, supposedly critical, educational
writing – or educobabble, as it is disparagingly referred to. It is an intellectual
illness that, once spread, becomes the norm. A linguistic form of Gresham’s
law operates, whereby outrages such as Sokal’s hoax become possible. A con –
tribution that philosophy can make to educational debate is to encourage
clear communication; this at least allows errors and faulty reasoning to be
identified, and not just persist in an obscurantist fog. The ability to write
clearly, and to express an opinion in an intelligible manner, should be one
of the basic outcomes of education. If that is not achieved, then just about
all else is lost.
Teaching the Content of Science
Many science educators are interested in finding out how, on constructivist
principles, somebody teaches a body of scientific knowledge that is in large
part abstract (depending on notions such as velocity, acceleration, force,
genes, vectors), that is removed from experience (propositions about atomic
structure, cellular processes, astronomic events), that has no connection with
prior conceptions (ideas of viruses, antibodies, molten core, evolution,
electromagnetic radiation) and that is alien to common sense and in conflict
with everyday experience, expectations and concepts. Joan Solomon well
articulated the problem:
Constructivism has always skirted round the actual learning of an established body
of knowledge . . . students will find that words are used in new and standardised
ways: problems which were never even seen as being problems, are solved in a
sense which needs to be learned and rehearsed. For a time all pupils may feel that
they are on foreign land and no amount of recollection of their own remembered
territory with shut eyes will help them to acclimatise.
(Solomon 1994, p. 16)
Teaching a body of knowledge involves, not just teaching the concepts, but
also the method, and something of the methodology or theory of method. How
all of this is to be taught, without teachers actually conveying something to
pupils, is a moot point. It is impossible for a person to learn to play chess
without the rules of chess in some way being conveyed to him or her; they
cannot be made up by the individual. A student who asks if the rook can move
318 Constructivism and Science Education
diagonally needs to be told ‘no’; this piece of knowledge can be, and has to
be, transferred from someone who knows to someone who does not know.
The Efficacy of Constructivist Methods
The supposed efficacy of constructivist, or minimally guided, pedagogy has
long been challenged by educational researchers. Controversy about literacy
teaching, the ‘Reading Wars’, was the public face of this research debate. The
efficacy of constructivist-inspired ‘whole language’ and ‘reading recovery’
literacy programmes has been contrasted with phonic instruction in countless
studies. After three decades of studies, the overwhelming conclusion is that
constructivist teaching does little to develop reading competence and is
markedly less successful than its non-constructivist, phonics alternative.
Although learning to speak is natural, learning to read is unnatural and needs
to be explicitly taught.
Twenty years ago, it was well documented that New Zealand’s own,
path-breaking, constructivist-driven reading recovery (or ‘whole language’)
programmes did not work, and where they did it was on account of the
influence of ‘extra-classroom’ influences (Matthews 1995, Chapter 2). These
results did not prevent reading recovery sweeping across the international
elementary-school world and its founder, Marie Clay, being knighted. The
unfortunate outcome was that it wasted millions of teacher-hours of time and
thwarted the literacy of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children,
and is still doing so.20 The most recent New Zealand national report has
looked at studies in the intervening two decades and reaches the original
Three interrelated factors were identified as contributing to the failure of New
Zealand’s literacy strategy: a rigidly constructivist orientation toward literacy
education, the failure to respond adequately to differences in literate cultural
capital at school entry, and restrictive policies regarding the first year of literacy
(Tunmer et al. 2013, p. 34)
The same research arguments were thrashed out in the equally public ‘Maths
Wars’, with the same outcome: constructivist-inspired maths teaching leaves
students innumerate (Geary 1995, Klein 2007). One psychologist, introducing
his appraisal of this research, says it:
begins with an overview and critique of basic philosophical themes that currently
guide educational practice in the United States, in particular the constructivist view
of mathematics education. . . . At the same time, many of these educational
researchers have ignored or dismissed a large body of relevant psychological
research and theory.
(Geary 1995, p. 31)
Constructivism and Science Education 319
Richard Mayer, a past-president of the Division of Educational Psychology
of the American Psychological Association, a former editor of the Educational
Psychologist and a former co-editor of Instructional Science, in a landmark
study, reviewed an extensive body of research on constructivist pedagogy and
concluded that it did not work, and, where it did work, it was by virtue of
departing from constructivist principles (Mayer 2004). His analysis was
confirmed by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, who, in a review article, argued
The past half century of research on this issue has provided overwhelming and
unambiguous evidence that unguided or minimally guided learning is significantly
less effective and efficient than guidance that is specifically designed to support
the cognitive processing necessary for learning. Not only is minimally-guided
learning ineffective for most learners, it may even be harmful for some. . . . The
best evidence developed over the past half century supports the view that
minimally-guided learning does not enhance student achievement any more than
throwing a non-swimmer out of a boat in the middle of a deep lake supports
learning to swim.
(Kirschner et al. 2006, p. 75)
Such conclusions seem obvious, and dictated by the very nature of the
discipline of science. Someone learning to play chess has to be told the rules
by someone who knows the rules; learners cannot make up the rules, they
cannot negotiate the rules, and even if they brainstorm to the conclusion that
rooks can move diagonally, this does not mean that rooks can so move.
Knowledge of what is allowed and not allowed in chess has to be transmitted;
further competence in chess depends, not just on knowing the rules, but on
guidance and worked examples, on seeing how better players have responded
to similar situations; so it is in learning science.
E.D. Hirsch Jr, in his The Schools We Need, documents the impact of
constructivism in the USA and concludes:
In short, the term ‘constructivism’ has become a kind of magical incantation used to defend discovery learning, which is no more sanctioned by
psychological theory than any other form of constructed learning. To pretend that
it is so sanctioned illustrates what I mean by the ‘selective use of research’.
(Hirsch 1996, p. 135)
Cultural Consequences of Constructivism
Constructivism is fraught with grave educational and cultural implications that
are seldom recognised, much less engaged with. All cultures build up traditions
and understandings that they pass on in formal and informal settings. Having
such traditions is the hallmark of a healthy culture. Each new generation does
not have to start completely anew the task of making meaning. Radical
constructivism, with its in-principle aversion to transmission of knowledge,
makes tradition nugatory; indeed, if it is seriously adopted, it destroys
320 Constructivism and Science Education
traditional culture. The core of traditional, indeed any healthy, culture is the
transmission of the culture’s beliefs and mores; it is plainly ridiculous, and
culture destroying, for constructivists to maintain that putative knowledge
cannot be so transmitted.21
On the other hand, it is notorious that people have, for centuries, thought
that the grossest injustices, and the greatest evils, have all made sense. The
subjection of women to men has, and still does, make perfectly good sense
to millions of people and to scores of societies; explaining illness in terms of
possession by evil spirits makes perfectly good sense to countless millions;
the intellectual inferiority of particular races is perfectly sensible to millions
of people, including some of the most advanced thinkers; to very sophisticated
Nazi Germans, it made sense to regard Jewish people as subhumans and to
institute extermination programmes for them; apartheid made sense to South
Africans, just as racial discrimination did to US citizens until very recently.
The list of atrocities and stupidities that have made perfect sense at some time
or other, or in some place or other, is endless. It seems clear that the appeal
to sense is not going to be sufficient to refute such views. However, the appeal
to truth, or right, which is independent of human desires or power, may be
able to overturn such opinions and practices. Certainly, the interests of the
less powerful and marginalised are not advanced by championing the view
that power is truth; minority rights have always been better advanced by
holding on to the view that truth is power. Michael Devitt, recognising these
and other problems, commented that:
I have a candidate for the most dangerous contemporary intellectual tendency, it
is . . . constructivism. Constructivism is a combination of two Kantian ideas with
twentieth-century relativism. The two Kantian ideas are, first, that we make the
known world by imposing concepts, and, second, that the independent world is
(at most) a mere ‘thing-in-itself’ forever beyond our ken. . . . [Considering] its role
in France, in the social sciences, in literature departments, and in some largely
well-meaning, but confused, political movements [it] has led to a veritable epidemic
of ‘world-making’. Constructivism attacks the immune system that saves us from
(Devitt 1991, p. ix)
The relativism, and subjectivism, of constructivism is particularly ill suited
to dealing with the complex, trans-social problems facing the contemporary
world. There is a need for the sustained application of Enlightenment reason
and the rejection of self-interest in the attempt to deal with pressing
environmental, political and social questions – think of the political situation
in many parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, the Balkans
and elsewhere.22 Karl Popper recognised this socially corrosive aspect of
constructivism, when he said:
The belief of a liberal – the belief in the possibility of a rule of law, of equal justice,
of fundamental rights, and a free society – can easily survive the recognition that
Constructivism and Science Education 321
judges are not omniscient and may make mistakes about facts. . . . But the belief
in the possibility of a rule of law, of justice, and of freedom, can hardly survive
the acceptance of an epistemology which teaches that there are no objective facts;
not merely in this particular case, but in any other case.
(Popper 1963, p. 5)
This chapter has given an indication of the enormous impact of constructivism
on the theory and practice of science education, and has appraised the explicit
epistemological and ontological claims made by constructivists. The general
conclusion reached has been that, in as much as there are arguments advanced
for the epistemological and ontological positions, they are weak arguments.
Constructivism amounts to a restatement of standard empiricist theory of
science and suffers all the well-known faults of that theory.
However, the interactive, anti-dogmatic teaching practices supported by
constructivism need not be abandoned. Von Glasersfeld acknowledges that:
‘Good teachers . . . have practised much of what is suggested here, without
the benefit of an explicit theory of knowledge . . . their approach was intuitive
and successful’ (von Glasersfeld 1989, p. 138). Other epistemologies and
other educational theories can equally suggest and demand humane, engaged,
interactive, antidogmatic and intellectual teaching, aimed at the development
of critical capacities and well-formed understandings. It is clear that the best
of constructivist pedagogy can be had without constructivist epistemology –
Socrates, Montaigne, Locke, Priestley, Mill and Russell are just some who have
conjoined engaging, constructivist-like pedagogy with non-constructivist
epistemology. Since Socrates, this has characterised the best of liberal
education, but, as with Socrates, realists and non-sceptics have been prepared
to challenge students’ firmly held beliefs, which may well be reinforced by an
overwhelming amount of common-sense experience and deeply held cultural
values. In brief, what is good in constructivism has long been known in
philosophy and in the liberal tradition of education, and that what is novel
in constructivism is misguided and dangerous to both education and society.
1 An extensive PhD thesis on the pedagogical and theoretical deficiencies of PBL is being
written by Gary Niven, in the School of Medicine at the University of Queensland.
2 There is yet to appear a comprehensive historical account of the ups and downs, and
the external and internal dynamics, of the constructivist wave that moved through
education from the 1970s to the early years of this century. Limited historical reviews
can be found in Osborne (1996), Phillips (1997b, 2000) and Solomon (1994).
3 See especially: Bowers (2007), Grandy (1997), Kragh (1998), Matthews (1993, 2000),
McCarty and Schwandt (2000), Nola (1997, 2003), Phillips (1997a, 1997b, 2000),
Scerri (2003), Slezak (2000, 2010, 2014), Small (2003) and Suchting (1992).
4 See especially, Kirschner et al. (2006), Mayer (2004) and contributions to Tobias and
Duffy (2009).
322 Constructivism and Science Education
5 The claims of sociological constructivism and its contentious and revolutionary
implications for science education are examined and mostly refuted in Slezak (1994a,
6 The German expression for ‘world outlook’ is more directly connected to feelings, ethics
and personal and political action than the more passive, spectator-like Anglo term
7 From the Constructivist Foundations website:
8 On the distinction between teaching and education, see Hirst (1971); on the concept
of indoctrination, see contributions to Snook (1972).
9 On the notion of ‘rational learning’, see Hamlyn (1973).
10 On the relationship between constructivism and classic empiricism, see Matthews
(1993) and Suchting (1992).
11 See contributions to NRC (2002).
12 See, for instance, Hamlyn (1978).
13 The distinction owes its modern form to Ryle (1949).
14 See Bickhard (1997) and Niiniluoto (1991).
15 See, for instance, Siegel (1987), Norris (1997), and contributions to Nola (1988).
16 See, especially, Nola (2003) and Papayannakos (2008).
17 The idealism of these sociologists has been well surveyed by Bunge (1991, 1992).
18 Some central studies are: Burr and Hofer (2002), Chinn and Malhotra (2002), Hofer
and Pintrich (1997), Kuhn et al. (2000) and Schommer (1994).
19 This case is elaborated and discussed in Matthews (1998).
20 There is an enormous literature on this subject, with governments around the world
commissioning their own reports. With qualifications, the overall conclusion that
children need to be directly taught reading, phonic-by-phonic and then combinations
of phonics, still holds. This does not, of course, guarantee that they will read; the latter
depends on having engaging material to read.
21 This is the thrust of Chet Bowers’ critique of constructivism as being a vehicle for
Western imperialism (Bowers 2007). On this issue, see Taber (2009, pp. 148–160).
22 Harvey Siegel has written on these themes, with one paper appropriately titled: ‘Radical
Pedagogy Requires “Conservative” Epistemology’ (Siegel 1995).
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