Constructivism is the theory that humans construct their own realities based on their experiences and create their own knowledge and understanding of the world. Constructivist psychology includes a variety of different approaches, all of which view human knowledge as deriving from active constructive processes of each individual, rather than the standard psychological view of the mind as a passive instrument that gathers environmental information for understanding reality. Constructivist psychology examines the ways in which people create their understanding of their experience and their world. Constructivist clinical psychology and psychotherapies foster active participation in one's life to create new meaning and effect change.
Constructivism is sometimes referred to as a “metatheory” or “metatheoretical perspective,” because it incorporates aspects of various disciplines—psychology, psychiatry, neurobiology, medicine, physics, linguistics, philosophy, history, political science, and spirituality. As constructivism has gained acceptance in recent decades, it has also influenced other disciplines, including medicine and education, as well as psychology.
Constructivism focuses on the individual's construction of reality, rather than evaluating how well that construction reflects external reality. Although the language and terminology of constructivism vary in different disciplines, its basic themes remain the same:
Constructivism and “construct-based” terms began appearing in the language of psychology toward the end of the twentieth century. However, ideas about the structuring or organizing processes of the human mind date back more than 2,000 years. The philosophers Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined knowledge as the active structuring of experience rather than the assimilation of “reality.” Their intellectual successor Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933) proposed that mental processes— rather than portraying or reflecting reality—formed “functional fictions” that enabled people to navigate life. Vaihinger, along with William James (1842–1910) and others, ushered constructivism into the twentieth century. Constructivism was a cornerstone of the theory of individual psychology developed by Alfred Adler (1870–1937).
The American clinical psychologist George Kelly (1905–1967) was the first to propose a constructivist theory of psychotherapy. He developed his personal construct psychology (PCP), a theory of personality and cognition, during the 1950s. Kelly believed that people order or organize themselves by ordering their thoughts. He theorized that people use their “personal constructs” to predict the behavior of others and are constantly testing their constructs and predictions. Experimenting with new perspectives and behaviors can alter personal constructs. Therefore, the goal of psychotherapy should be to facilitate clients’ explorations of their own minds without intervention by the therapist.
In the late 1970s, Michael Mahoney and others promoted a constructivist approach to cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goals of these new therapies were to increase self-awareness and assist clients in reconstructing an emotionally coherent sense of identity. This extended the focus of CBT from conscious inner dialogue and automatic thinking to more intuitive non-conscious processes. Eventually, constructivist ideas spread to other types of therapy, including psychoanalysis.
Clinical constructivism is a search for and exploration of solutions rather than diagnoses of dysfunction. In any type of constructivist therapy, the therapist is a facilitator, and the client is the agent of change or self-reorganization. The therapist's goal is to help clients escape from the habitual patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that emerged as they organized their worlds. In constructivist psychotherapy, the therapist may confront clients’ worldviews to help expand their framing of problems or their understanding and constructions of their experiences. Although constructivist analysts do emphasize significant memories from early life, they tend to view these as narrative inventions rather than insights. Constructivist therapies may utilize techniques such as sensory-awareness exercises, journaling, or guided imagery.
Constructivism has led to various inventive therapeutic techniques, especially in the fields of humanistic-existential psychotherapy and family systems therapy, but also in CBT and person-centered and dialectical therapies. Other types of therapy, such as narrative, collaborative, and coherence therapies, have also been influenced by constructivism. Family systems therapists have adopted a social constructionist approach, in which the therapist functions as a facilitator of conversations and exchanges among family members, in order to replace old problems by rephrasing them in new ways. Family therapists also use constructivism to help clients break out of their family and/or cultural narratives, so as to begin rewriting the stories of their own lives. Constructivism can be especially useful for grief therapy, in which clients are faced with reorganizing and reconstructing their realities, including establishing new routines and relationships and sometimes new identities.
Jean Piaget's (1896–1980) model of cognitive development describes a learning dynamic that is a balance between the novel and the familiar, an exchange between individuals and their environments, and the ongoing lifelong process of individuals organizing their worlds by organizing themselves. This developmental self-organization is central to educational constructivism.
In constructivist theories of learning, the acquisition of knowledge is the construction of knowledge. Students are at the center of learning, and construction takes place through their own initiatives, with teachers as the helpers or drivers. Learners construct knowledge through a variety of processes, including cognition, vicarious experiences, modeling, and observational learning. Anyone or anything that the learner interacts with becomes an active participant in the learning process.
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