Learning from different perspective.

Constructivism to Situated Learning

                  Joan Bliss,

      University of Sussex


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NASA’s history Curator, Steve Garber ( 2007) commented that  “History changed on October 4,  1957 , when Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 . The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments.” The last two areas mentioned were very important for Education.

In my article ( Bliss 1995 ) I say  “The Americans wondered why their scientists were not the first to go into space. Huge investments in the USA went into large scale curriculum development in the sciences, with projects as the Physical Sciences Study Committee ( PSSC), the Chemical Bond Approach ( CBA) Chem Study, and in biology BSCS.

England followed in the early 1960’s with more than a dozen curriculum development projects sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation in Physics, chemistry, biology and integrated science for pupils between 11- 16 and  by 1967, for 16-18 year olds. Many other countries such as France, Germany, Sweden and other European countries, Canada and Australia followed, some adapting the ideas and others developing their own.


Primary education saw parallel developments in many countries, these reforms being very much influenced by the work of Piaget. Among such developments were: The Science Curriculum Improved Study ( SCIS) from Laurence Hall  of Science, Berkeley ; in Britain the Schools Council Science 5-13 and the Nuffield Foundation Mathematics 5-13 ; in Australia the Australian Science Education Project ( ASEP).”

However in spite of these teaching innovations, students continued to hold ideas that were very different from those taught in school. Many of them were very robust, being particularly resisted to teaching. ( Viennot, 1979) . Hence from the 1970s a world wide trend in science education developed in which researchers and science educators set out to describe pupils’ ideas about various scientific concept areas such as dynamics, light , heat, energy, electricity, etc. This trend also happened in mathematics and other subject areas. It was from these various research areas that the field of children conceptions came in being. This research is known under the a variety of headings as : Alternative, ideas,    Conceptions, Misconceptions, Informal ideas, Intuitive ideas, etc. .

It is crucial to realize than Jean Piaget, whose research, which started many years ago in the 1920’s , was one of the first to put forward forcefully, with existing supporting evidence, the notion that children construct their own knowledge and that this knowledge is different in kind from an adult’s,  evolving and changing over years. Thus I start this talk by referring first to Piaget.


Then I move onto Vygotsky whose work, with its greater focus on the teacher, haw more recently also attracted the attention of educators. A common view, but in my opinion one to be strongly resisted, is to regard Vygotsky as supplanting Piaget as the theorist on whom to rely. I shall argue than both are essential to an understanding of teaching and learning and than their ideas are not conflicting but complementary.


Then I go to mention Jerome Bruner, who is a well-known psychologist and educator and whose work has parallels with Piaget, which I set out. An finally I pass to the School of Situated Learning, which has recently become very popular in the educational field since it stresses the importance of the context in which children and students learning. Clearly I shall only be able to refer in each these areas very briefly and further reading is available as per attached bibliography.  Some of the ideas that are outlined in this plenary were also presented in a keynote lecture in ESERA Conference ( European Science Education Research Association ) in Malmo, August 2007.

Both Piaget and Vygotsky were born in 1896,and Bruner was born nineteen years later in 1915. However while Vygotsky died young in 1934, Piaget lived to a good age, dying only in 1980. Bruner is alive and well in at the moment of giving this talk.


The fourth approach Situated Learning, covers a whole range of proponents. One of the earliest was Michael Cole who worked with Luria in Russia for a year  in 1963 where he became well acquainted with the work of Vygotsky. However it was during the research in Liberia with John Gay that his concerns with the cultural context of situations arose since, aw he put it ( writing later in 1984 ) , “My job was to help him  ( Gay) find ways to figure out what the Kpelle people understood about mathematics.” Others who form part of this school of thought  were: James Greeno, Barbara Rogoff, Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner.


Before the main presentation, a little history could be helpful. Vygotsky’s work was censured at about the time of his death ( 1934) by the Russian regime. Thus his ideas were not known in the West until 1962 when his book on “Thought and Language” was translated and published in the USA. One of the important figures of this work relates to the nature of egocentric speech. Piaget was the first to describe this type of speech in his work The Language and Thought of the Child” published in 1923. H e showed that with young children of about three or four years there was a type of speech that, while accompanying their activities, was not directed towards any one in particular, hence its name “egocentric”.

For Vygotsky who had read Piaget’s early research, language was always social in origin and so he sought to try and further understand the role and function of egocentric speech. In order to do this Vygotsky replicated the tasks given by Piaget to children but he added a series of difficulties and frustrations to them. In such situations the occurrence of egocentric speech almost doubled. Vygotsky’ s interpretation of this phenomenon was that children were thinking aloud and trying to help themselves plan in  tricky situations by talking to themselves but aloud . He went on to hypothesise that as children grew older this egocentric speech would gradually internalise itself and become inner speech, our soundless interior voice, which helps us to think through our internal ideas, published by Vygotsky’ s in “Thought and Language, 1934” . Unfortunately Piaget did not hear about  Vygotsky’ s work and his interest in egocentric speech until his book on Thought and Language came out in 1962.



Piaget trained as a biologist. However his life work was focused on what haw become known as Genetic Epistemology, that is, the growth of knowledge and the rules that govern this growth. So, although, most people believe that Piaget’ s interest was in children, it is in fact, a concern with the growth of knowledge in the “average “ child or what he called “ epistemic “ subject and not in individual children.

Piaget is often criticized for not discussing the areas of motivation, socialization and individual differences in children; but since he was dealing with the “epistemic subject” these were not his concerns.

He was an epistemologist and no a child psychologist. His focus was always on cognitive development only, for example: number, space, geometry, physical quantities (substance, weight, volume, area, perimeter speed, time, distance, acceleration), probability, memory, mental imagery, cause and effect.


 Bliss (1995, 2000 ) point out that Piaget, amongst others ,  was at origin of Constructivism. The key idea for Piaget is than children are always active, making sense of world around them and constructing their vision of it. So actions underlies and is fundamental to children’ s development of knowledge. Piaget’ s Constructivism is realist, with intelligence deriving from real actions and real objects. He argued

“These pages contain an account of an epistemology that is naturalist without being positivist; that draws attention to the activity of the subject without being idealist ; that equally bases itself on the object, which it considers as a limit, therefore existing independently of us but never completely reached ( known ) and above all sees knowledge as a continuous construction” ( Piaget, 1968)

Since knowledge evolves, for Piaget each development step is vital and valid. But children’s ideas are very different from those of the adult and particularly in specialist areas like science and mathematics. Thus there is a need to respect children’s   views about world and in any learning sequence to attempt to build on these ( Piaget 1968 and 1972 ) . Not matter how strange or different a child or a student idea appears from our own, it is vital to the realize that this is how he or she is understanding the environment around them at that moment of the time.

Piaget is also considered to be a Structuralist. He believed in the importance of hypothesing mental structures to account for the qualitatively different stages to describe children intellectual development . And for Piaget ( 1968 ) structure describes “ what is common to development” at each stage. There are four stages: a. Sensori-motor approx  0 – 18 months, 2 years

b. Pre-operational : approx    18 months – 5/6 years

c. Concrete – operational: approx 6/7 years – 14/15 years

d. Formal operational : approx   15/16 years – onwards

Thus intellectual development entails the assimilation of the world to these thinking structures, and the accommodation of these to the world. Note that during the sensori motor period children’s knowledge is acquired through their actions and movements and through their senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Through this period the ability to represent absent objects and happenings develop, so that by about 18 months the child is able to represent absent realities my means of symbols and signs. The beginning of the preoperational stage is marked by the acquisition of this power to represent. Young children san now start interiorise their  sensori motor action schemes and learn about the world around them. Other aspects of this stage are that of egocentrism, that is, not taking account of others’ point of view; that of not being able to separate reality from appearances and that of being easily confused by causal relations.

A little later, toward the end of the pre-operations stage, there appears one of the more important features of children’s development, the interiorisation of their actions of the world, which become internal mental structures, allowed children to imagine actions in the head, which characterizes the beginning of concrete operations.

They become much less egocentric and are capable of many tasks such as classification, conservation of basic elements, ordering etc, which require thinking about the world in terms of objects and transformations. But abstract thinking is difficult for them and this only becomes easier with the beginning of formal operational thinking where children are then capable of what is called hypothetical deductive thinking. It is during this phase that students are reasoning on propositions about the world, rather than directly on the world itself.

It is important to note Piaget’ s early writings suggested that  the formal operations stage would begin around the age of 12 or 13 years. Much later research haw shown that formal abstract thinking tends to be reached by students at a much later age than Piaget describe, more like 15 or 16 years old and then only by a small percentage of students approx 20% at 16 years old.

Important features in stages

There are a number of aspects of stages that are crucial to development

·         The order in which children’s knowledge develops is invariant. In other words, a child will always go through the stages of knowledge development in the same sequence.

·         However the age in which children reach any stage will vary from child to child, depending on a range of factors such as social, cultural background, motivation, schooling . .

·         The stages are NOT age related in any strict sense. In other words, for the development of children’ s knowledge- the pattern stays the same but the pace varies !

Some limitations of Piaget work:

·                    For most of his research, Piaget neglected the role of language and focused always on action and activity. However, in the late 1960’s he started working with linguistics and some of his later work refers to the role of language. ( H. Sinclair-de- Zwart, 1967)

·                  There is only a limited description of formal abstract thinking since most of Piaget’s work focused on the development of knowledg  e from birth until the age of 14/15 years, which is, the first three stages of development; and not, as he saw it, on the end point as described in formal thinking.

·                   Piaget attempted to postulate structures of thinking that went beyond his behavioural and psychological descriptions, Thus he borrowed from logic and mathematics for descriptions of them. But the use of these two disciplines to provide such descriptions was unfortunate since they always use closed structures. Our thinking, particularly at the formal level, tends to be reflective and thus he needed to find appropriate structures for modeling it. Disciplines such as Cybernetics of Artificial Intelligence might be able to find ways of modelling “ thought about thought ‘ , that is, structures that give feedback or reflect on themselves but Piaget did not live long enough to become familiar with these new disciplines, ( Margaret Boden, 1979)

·                  Towards the end of his life Piaget ( 1979 ) started to work again on cause and effect – his earlier work in this area have been carried out in the 1930’s . There are at least one hundred tasks showing interesting and original results as a result of his work. Initially his approach to causality used inappropriate structures for modelling children’ s understanding of causal mechanisms.


Later Piaget worked with Garcia ( 1983, 1987 ) on his work in causality. This allowed him to come closer to a better description of the physical world, when he suggested that meanings are tied unambiguously to the nature of things.

“ Two meanings of an object are, subjectively, what can be done with it and, objectively, what it is made of or how it is composed ”

In spite of the many criticisms that can be made of Piaget, Carey ( 1985 ) pointed out,

Piaget’ s stage theory brought order to otherwise bewilderingly diverse developments . . it offered the hope of reducing the task of explaining developments changes to manageable proportions.




It is important to remember that the work of Vygotsky was published before his death in 1934 and only became known to readers in the West in 1962 with his first translated book on Thought and Language. Then in the late 1970 his ideas about child development started also to be translated and published. Vygotsky said many significant things about the later area.

Today, however, I am choosing the focus on only four important aspects of this.


First:  The role of the adult in child development   

Vygotsky stressed the role of the adult : parent, teacher or competent peer, as being crucial on the learning process and so the child’ s intellectual development . In discussing this, Vygotsky ( 1978) gave a definition of how learning takes place, using the term zone of proximal development ( ZPD), which is defined as follows:

The ZPD is the distance between the actual development as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers

One of the difficulties of implementing such a definition is that probably the student will have a different ZPD in every subject area: science, maths, history . . And to add this, the ZP will be very different for every child across these different areas. ( Newmann, GRIFFIN, Cole ) However key to the child’ s learning is the guidance of the adult.

Second: The difference between actual and potential development

With this second aspect, potential development is emphasized. This actually means that there is a new relationship between development and learning.

In Education in many circumstances spontaneous development is usually the major concern, particularly, for example , with the recent important of tests, examinations etc. Kozulin ( 1990) pointed out that for Vygotsky, psychological development does not precede instruction but depends on it and went on to say:

ZPD taps those psychological functions which are in the process of development and which are likely to be overlooked if the focus is exclusively on the child’ s performance

In other words, we need to examine how far children can be stretched in school with the help of the teacher in their discipline. But, in fact, essential development is what school is about ; that is, taking children from their initial state of knowledge to a nev knowledge – that which teachers, school and the curriculum consider as important for them to learn.

Wood, Bruner and Ross ( 1976 ) describe what happens in ZPD as involving a kind of “ scaffolding process’ but little is known about this, particularly in specialist areas, like science and mathematics where the knowledge to be acquire is not intuitive. Much more research is needed into how to built bridges or scaffold these difficult subjects. After a study of scaffolding in science, design and technology and mathematics, where it proved to be very illusive ( sample children 9 and 11 years) we concluded ( 1996).

“ Since much school knowledge is specialized ( nesserarily so ) there is always ambiguity in the teaching learning situation. Teachers need to believe that children can learn difficult and complex ideas ;  this is what school is about . But they must be content that often pupils can only do this one step or a few at a time . Graduallly teacher and pupil negotiate path to thiw specialised knowledge . Care in this

joint activity of negotiation is crucial to recuce the degree of uncertainty that pupil face.

Third : The social origins of culturaldevelopments

Vygotsky ( 1981) stresses the role that social processes play in child development when he says :

“Any function in child’ s cultural development appears twice or on two planes. First it appears on social plane and then on psychological plane. First it appears between people as an inter- psychological category and then within child as an intra- psychological category.”

Thus Vygotsky stresses the importance on socially constructed knowledge – our cultural and social heritage -  passed from one generation to another, for example, teachers in school as well as parents and family.

 Fourth : The role of language :

For Vygotsky language is considered as a significant tool, serving as intermediary between spontaneous concepts and the higher mental functions . The mastery of language will transform elementary mental functions into the higher metal functions. Also, according to Vygotsky, language mediates the genesis of the higher mental functions   themselves.

Vygotsky ( 1981) says that language has importace as psychological tool because it helps change qualitatively how we think.  “the psychological tool alters the entire flow and structure of mental functions”


                 Piaget and Vygotsky

Does Vygotsky replace or complement Piaget?

a. Piaget tells us about knowledge acquired through the child’s own activities ( spontaneous knowledge)

b. Vygotsky tells uw about knowledge acquired from other people and from social practices

Both types of knowledge are necessary to our functions in society so in this respect Piaget and Vygotsky complement one another.

Where Piaget and Vygotsky differ is in the relation both to the role of adults and teachers and the role of language.

Firstly, in Piaget’s work, the role of others in the development of children’s ideas is considered, but only in the very waste sense. For example he sees other people as crucial in the development of decentering process from an initial egocentricism to a more social point of view through interaction with others. In the main, however, individual constructivism does not attribute a sufficient role to the teacher, the parent or the peer, and this has rightly led to the attention being given  to Vygotsky’ s ideas about the role of the adult or teacher in learning. This is emphasised in the distinction between actual level and development and his/her potential level that can be reached with assistance – which is the essence of the adult and teacher’s role.

Secondly, for Vygotsky linguistic organization always uses the context. Also language is needed in abstract reflection for concept development, reasoning and thinking. Vygotsky claims that one instance in the social becoming part of the individual is through the acquisition of language.

For Piaget the act of knowing comprises both operative and figurative aspects.

Unfortunately the figurative aspect, with covers not only perception but also imitation, image and language, only plays a subsidiary role in understanding. And with the figurative side, language is only an element, so for Piaget it has a very minor role. It was only towards the end of his life he gave it more importance.

But for Piaget, language is critical to formal abstract thinking because abstract thought is about propositions about the real world and not the real world itself.


                               Jerom  BRUNER

One of Bruner’s most important books was The Process of Education ( 1960). In This book he expressed the view that teachers often wasted a great deal of pupils’ time because they postponed teaching areas of the curriculum that they considered too difficult for the pupils to learn. Thus the myth of “readiness to learn” arose, that is, that students had to be ready to learn something, otherwise it was pointless teaching it. Bruner rejected this notion and went in an argue:

«We begin with the hypothesis that any object can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development»

Thus he elaborated the notion of what is known as the spiral curriculum

“ A curriculum as it develops should revisit the basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them”

His work in the social studies program – Man: A Course of Study ( MACOS) in the mid-1960s was a landmark in curriculum development.

After working in the field of new trends of USA curriculum development in the 1950s and 1960s, Bruner turned to children’s cognitive development is very influenced by Piaget’s development, reinforced by the visit to Piaget in Geneva.

His approach to cognitive development is very influenced by Piaget’s development approach to knowledge.

But ruther than describing an alternative theory of knowledge Bruner (1966) focused on three modes of REPRESENTATION of knowledge   and the development of three modes.

But what is REPRESENTATION? To put it simply, representation is a key human ability. In more detail, it is individual’s ability to use in their mind actions, symbols, sighs to stand in the place of absent people, object, events etc. This allows them to bring to mind anything that is not present in their visual field. It also permits:

·        To recall of what is absent- past events

·        The imagination of what has not yet happened- future events.

Humans can live in their imagination whatever they wish to of need to. For example, any one of us could be placed in solitary conferment, and while it would be an unpleasant experience, we would have the resources of our imagination to keep our minds full of ideas and hope.

Bruner postulated three modes of representation:

ENACTIVE: This mode is dependent on actions and senses ( birth to 18 months) It comprises body images of , for example, imitation, tying a knot, swimming, cycling. In other words it involves representing events through motor responses, essentially  “KNOWING HOW TO DO SOMETHING”

ICONIC: This mode is dependent on images ( 18 months to 6/7 years), where the image resembles the object. However these are theindividual’s own personal omages, which of course, can differ from person to person. Thus a glamorous person will probably be quite different for a Greek and for a Scandinavian. There are some images that are common to many, for example, in UK the red rose in a certain position has come to represent Labour party.

SYMBOLIC: This mode is dependent on symbols (from 7 years onwards) where the link between the symbol and the object it represents is arbitrary e.g. a book, un livre, Ýíá âéâëßï. Symbols can illustrate people’s abstract thinking through their ability to consider propositions about the world using syumbols rather than objects in the world, for example logic, physics and mathematics.

BRUNER claimed that once we have acquired all three modes of representation, we can use whichever one is appropriate for whatever we wish to.

                                               PIAGET- BRUNER

I set out below the stages of Piaget knowing development and show how Bruner’s stages of the development of modes of representation run

PIAGET: Development of knowledge

BRYNER: Development of modes of representation


Sensori – motor                 Pre- operational

Concrete operational         Formal operational


Enactiv  Iconic      Symbolic

During the time that Bruner was developing his theorie of representation. Piaget was also carrying out research in the field of imagery and produced the book ” L’ image metale chez l’ enfant” in 1962



Situated Learning probably dates back to the work of Gay and Cole in Liberia ( 1967 ) when they started to analyse the role of culture on the development of learning and mathematical skills of the people of the Kpelle tribe. Situated Learning is however part of the wider and longer established framework, that of Situated Cognition, which builds on the writings of scholars as Heidegger and Gibson. Much of the work of Situated Learning has emerged from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at San Diego (established in 1978) which presently states that its goals are to “. . . pursue research which takes difference among human beings as a starting point for understanding human mental processes.”

The general idea of this school of thought is that people learn a multidude of things on informal settings where the social cultural context is important. From this perspective, cultural practices – employed in socially assembled situations – are learned systems of activity in which knowledge consists of standing rules for thought and action appropriate to a particular situation, which are embodied in the co-operation of individual members of a culture. There are so many adherents to this way of thinking it is sometimes difficult to sort out the differences between them. Thus I am referring to a fairly recent article be Engeström  (1999) on Situated Learning in which he claimed that,  

“Situated Learning should not be seen as unified theory – but a broad and relatively loose theoretical platform, informed by a number of contextual and practice-orientred theories and schools of thought, such as . . . “ ( p. 249 )

Then he lists

Activity theory : Vygotsky, Leontiev ;

Sociology: Bourdieu, Giddens

Situatedness : Garfinkel, Suchmann and

Practice-oriented variant of symbolic interactionism: Srauss


Engeström went on to distinguish two versions of Situated Learning:

The weak version (proponent : James Greeno ) and

The strong version (proponents: Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger)


The weak version

Greeno (1989) makes three key points, which characterize his approach

1. The locus of thinking and learning is not an individual’s mind but situated in physical and social contexts

2. The process of thinking and learning are not uniform across persons and situations. Divers people and groups have different reasons for holding knowledge to be true. For example, if we refer to religion and the idea of a deity : Christians refer to Bible to support their believes. Muslims and Islam, on the other hand, refer to Koran as their central religious text.

3. Lastly, thinking and learning are not built up from single components transmitted through school instruction; they are activities in which children create, elaborate and reorganize their knowledge and understanding- a statement not unlike Piaget’s view of intellectual development.

The strong version

Turning now to the stronge version of Situated Learning, Lave and Wenger (1991) state:

 “In our view, learning is not merely situated in practice – as if it were some independently reifiable process that just happened to be located somewhere; learning is integral part of generative social practices in the lived-in world.

Crucial to their ideas is the notion of a “Community of Practice”, which refers to the process of social learning. It occurs when people – with a common interest in subject – collaborate at length to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations. There are communities of practice everywhere – at work, at home, at school.  The key notion behind them is that of “shared practices.”


Wenger (1998) goes on to define a community of practice along three dimensions:

·        What is about – it is a joint enterprise as understood and renegotiated by its members

·        How it functions – it is a mutual enterprise, binding members together in a social entity

·        The capability it has produced over time – its shared repertoire of communal resources ( routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.)

Wenger (1998) further asserts that we need to consider the notion of identity. For him, learning is central to human identity, where learning is seen as social participation. Thus an individual constructs his/her identity through active participation in the practices of social communities. Likewise groups of individuals create their standard identity by participating in communal activities. A community of practice embodies the beliefs, knowledge and behaviours that needed to be acquired.

Studies in Situated Learning focus mainly on adults learning to : weave, pots, ski, tailor or be : midwives, quartermasters, butchers, etc. For Lave and Wenger ( 1991) learning does not belong to individuals, but to the social practices of communities of which individuals are part. Unfortunately there are a few studies focusing in communal or social practices in formal education: students, pupils, teachers, specialised knowledge etc. There are however quite a few links with informal education.

Lave and Wenger also claim that it has been their quest to find a metaphor for learning that exists outside formal educational contexts and is based on social participation. Their aim is to characterize Situated Learning through detailed examples that illustrate the types of relationships and the forms of participation essential to apprenticeships with in. However, it would seem that Lave has had a long-held scepticism about Situated Learning being part of formal schooling. For her, Situated Learning requires a “hands off” policy and appropriate “facilitative structures” for it to be implement in such a context.


Summarising the two positions, in the weak one of Greeno, learning is situated in physical and social contexts, thus context must always be into account – it is the starting point for learning studies

In the strong version, however, learning is a by-product of participation in any social practice thus the “social practice of a community carrying out such a practice” is the starting point for research into learning.


Engeström (1997, 1999) claimed that Situated Learning agenda needs reformulating. In the past there have been mainly global claims, based on few studies and not research questions. According to him, recent research demonstrates the need for focused theoretically grounded questions.

Rogoff, Turkanis, Bartlett’s (2001) recent research in a Community School in Salt Lake City introduced the principle of schooling where “learning occurs through interested participation with other learners”. However there are few observation of casework studies of educational practices. The work of Hergraves, Hestor and Mellor (1975) is good example of a study of school rules and labelling in classrooms. Let us hope there are many others to come.