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Social Constructivism

In this article, discover Social Constructivist learning theory and its associated teaching style. How relevant is it in the network age?
Graphic representation of 4 students learning together around a table.
© University of Southampton

The third picture represents our next learning theory – Social Constructivism. Like Cognitive Constructivism, our mental maps (schema) are important, so is actively ‘doing things’.

However, this theory argues that it is through the socially accepted frameworks of language and culture that meaning is developed and knowledge transmitted. Reconstructing our mental maps can not be separated from the social contexts in which we sit and the social interactions we participate in.

For example, instead of calling a small container for liquid ‘a glass’, if all of us on this course agreed to call it ‘a shoe’, then a sentence like “Can I have a shoe of water, please?” would make perfect sense to us. Just not to anyone else!

What this simple example suggests is that meaning is not just interpreted and constructed ‘inside our brain’, but is co-constructed through social interactions with other people using a shared understanding of language and culture.

Watch a video summary by academic Dr Andrew Wolf.

Teaching and learning

Social Constructivism suggests that learning is fundamentally a social activity. With someone (a teacher) to start the discussions off in the right direction and provide guidance along the way, small groups or communities of people:

  • situated in similar contexts,

  • motivated to work together on a challenging, yet achievable, task,

  • and with plenty of time for discussion,

will learn most effectively. This is known as Collaborative Peer Learning.

Considerations

This approach to learning is reliant on the existing motivations, skills and knowledge within the group, and the dynamics between its members, all of which are unlikely to be equal.

What are your experiences of teaching and learning in this way?
How relevant is Social Constructivism / Collaborative Peer Learning to the network age?

Key thinkers

Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in communities of practice. Perspectives on socially shared cognition, 2, 63-82. Chicago

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press. Chicago

Vygotsky, L (1978). Mind in Society. London: Harvard University Press.

© University of Southampton
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