What is constructivism?
Question: "What is constructivism? Do we construct understanding by reflecting on our experience?"
Answer: The term constructivism has more than one meaning, depending on the topic at hand. As it relates to the Bible, relevant uses of constructivism involve either educational methods or epistemology, which is the subject of how we know what is true. Other uses of the term are either less relevant to Scripture or have less far-reaching implications.
All forms of constructivism start with the premise that human beings understand everything in terms of relationships. This is similar to the idea of structuralism but with important differences. Structuralism assumes an awareness of larger, overarching themes or concepts, through which other ideas are understood. Constructivism, on the other hand, applies at a much smaller level. It indicates that our experiences define certain truths, and those constructed truths interlock to build our understanding of all other things.
As it applies to education, constructivism is a popular methodology. Though rarely mentioned directly, the philosophy is widely used in teaching methods. Under this approach, it is assumed that students learn best by doing and experiencing rather than being talked to by an educator. Constructionist approaches to learning are “hands-on” and heavily involve experimentation, use of Socratic questioning, and self-discovery of various ideas. Like any other educational philosophy, constructivism has both supporters and detractors.
The educational application of constructivism has some biblical support. Christian faith is frequently described as something that must be lived out (James 2:17–18) and practiced (Hebrews 5:14). Learning to follow Christ is a personal process (2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Timothy 2:15), not something we can simply “think” or mimic from others (Matthew 3:9; John 8:39–40). The whole concept of trust, which is how the Bible really defines “faith,” is grounded in our own personal sense of God’s presence and character (Jeremiah 31:33). It would be fair to say that Christian experience echoes that specific facet of a constructivist mindset: we must personally experience certain things in order to truly understand them, and our resulting perception of those ideas is inherently personal (1 Corinthians 2:14).
In dealing with epistemology, however, the term constructivism becomes less tenable. Epistemology refers to our sense of what is true; it is best described as the “philosophy of how we know things.” Philosophers distinguish ontology, a “philosophy of what exists,” from epistemology, a “philosophy of how (or what) we know.” Constructivist epistemology would suggest that all truths are ultimately a matter of human experience.
This sense of constructivism directly conflicts with the idea that there is a single objective truth, a position often referred to as objectivism. Constructivist epistemology, therefore, can be summarized accurately—if simplistically—as subjectivism or relativism. Under relativism, truth is dependent on the perspective of each person or group, and there is no ultimate standard. In a practical sense, this means no one perspective is inherently superior to any other, nor can it be considered more or less correct.
Like all forms of relativism, constructivist epistemology suffers from a fatal flaw: it is self-defeating. If constructivism is only true for some people, then it is not true for others. But that means it is entirely false—since objectivism is now “true” somewhere. In a similar way, epistemological constructivists claim to do what constructivism claims cannot be done: to see “beyond” the limitations of one’s own experiences to perceive a universal truth.
Beyond simple logic, the Bible also provides reasons to dismiss constructivism in the context of epistemology. Scripture speaks of truth as opposed to lies (Proverbs 14:5; 1 John 1:6), sin as opposed to righteousness (Proverbs 13:6; 1 Peter 2:24), and salvation as opposed to damnation (Revelation 20:11–15; John 14:6).
In short, the Bible indicates that there is an actual, objective reality. Whatever conflicts with objective truth is false, whether or not human beings understand that truth, and whether or not they like it (Romans 1:18–21; Matthew 7:21–23). Human beings may well form our understanding by reflecting on our experiences, but our experiences can only reveal truth; they cannot create it.
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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