Constructivism, Social Constructivism and Situated Cognition: A Sliding Scale

Is Constructivism, Social Constructivism and Situated Cognition A Sliding Scale?


This paper attempts to compare and contrast constructivist, social constructivist and situated cognition based learning theories that are part of the larger constructionist epistemology. The author will explain similarities and differences between these theories from a learning, knowledge building, teaching, technology and instructional design perspective.

The central theme of this essay revolves around the thesis that constructivism, social constructivism and situated cognition, although considered as separate learning theories, attempt to explain different aspects of the constructionist epistemology as a sliding scale (a term coined by Wise, 2010). The author will argue that these progenies of the constructionist epistemology essentially represent ideas in sliding scale emphasising different dimensions of teaching and learning rather than mutually exclusive points of view. This allows collaboration of ideas within these theories to further develop the scholarship of learning, technology and design.   

The first section of this paper will unfold concepts associated with learning and knowledge.

Learning and Knowledge  

The central theme behind the constructivist movement is that learning is a process where individuals create meaning from his or her own experiences with the world. The focus is on the individual, and how one interacts with the environment developing its own meaning and knowledge based on this experience (Ertmer & Newby, 1993). The social constructivist moving a step further, explains learning as a collaborative process. Teasley (1995) as quoted in Lipponen (2000) explains collaboration as a series of co-ordinated, synchronous activity that attempts to construct and maintain a shared conception of a given problem. In this view, learning is considered as a process where knowledge is co-constructed through a process of social interaction.  In another spectrum, Wilson and Meyers (2000) presents situated cognition, as a theory where “thinking and learning making sense only within particular situations. All thinking, learning and cognition are situated within particular context” (Wilson & Meyers, 2000). As per this ascertain, knowledge is highly situative and it is constructed within a given context. In essence, all of the above learning theories seem to agree that human beings create meaning; each emphasizing a different aspect of it as opposed to considering knowledge as a thing that could be acquired. These theories contrast their views from the objectivist movement and are the progenies of the constructionist epistemology which takes the view that meaning is derived through a process of interacting with the world and with others (Wise, 2010).

The interaction with the environment in facilitating the learning process is another similarity that these three theories share with each other. However, the nature of its interaction with the environment is on a sliding scale. The constructivist considers the interaction between the individual learner and the environment as a means of creating knowledge.  Clancy (1986) as quoted in Ertmer & Newby (1993) highlights that knowledge as the interpretation of a current situation based on an entire history of previous interactions with the environment. This prior experience could be an individual’s sensory experiences with the world or with others. (Wise, 2010). However, it is important to note that constructionist considers knowledge as an individually mediated product and the environment is viewed as that individual’s prior experiences. Social constructivist in contrast views knowledge as a socially mediated product (Stahl, 2000). The environment here would be the other learners who bring their prior experiences from different cultural contexts.  These different cultural and associated environments that learners represent will have a significant impact on the co-creation of knowledge mediated within that group. Social constructivist view of the environment is therefore more of interaction with other group members than one’s own prior experience. In situated cognition, the environment is the context in which knowledge is situated. It could be the social, cultural and the economic context that knowledge is embedded where knowledge and the environment is considered inseparable. This theory highlights that knowledge is not something that could be generalized but it will have contextual meaning and will be lost if the environment is separated. In contrasting these theories on this point, constructivist and social constructivist emphasised the importance of the environment in the process of constructing knowledge while situated cognition related to the environment as a product of knowledge itself. The author argues that the environment could be used as a common scale here where each theory slides differently in terms of how it views environment as a process as well as a product in constructing knowledge.

On the notion of the individual verses the group, constructivist mainly focus on the individual in the knowledge creation process. Social constructivist does not separate individual cognition from social activity and mainly accentuates the group as a creator of knowledge. This however does not neglect the individual. Stahl (2000) in presenting a model that relates to collaborative knowledge starts off the knowledge creation process with the cycle of personal understanding and then highlights the cycle of social knowledge building finishing off with the individual. Wise (2010) in presenting the dynamic framework of knowledge building model, introduces the twin processes of knowledge building as externalization through collective reflection and internalization of knowledge through a conscientious practice. One could argue although the group co-creates knowledge (as highlighted in the social constructivist movement), the learner will construct their own meaning when they internalize knowledge on an individual capacity. Thus, the individual and the group cognition cannot be separated in social constructivist thinking. This again is another example of how individual and group cognition could be placed in a sliding scale. As for situated cognition, although the cognitive development of the individual is emphasized, its main emphasis is not the individual or a group but rather the context. The context could be any form of an environment and does not necessarily have to be another person. However, it is important to note that, although situated cognition does not emphasize on the individual or the group, it does not reject them. One could argue that the environment or the context will be highly influenced by the individuals or the group that it is made up of and therefore knowledge is situated within environment influenced by individuals or groups. The author does not see these three theories as different on this point but sees them as emphasizing different points in the same scale.   

Lastly on the aspect of transfer, constructivist considers transfer as the enhancement of current knowledge by the individual based on prior experiences and existing knowledge structures. As for the social constructivist, this enhancement of current knowledge is a negotiated process between the members of the group that is involved with the process. So the difference lies between the individual and the group between these two theories. The concept of transfer in a situated cognition is subjected to many criticisms. In fact the process of transfer is highlighted as the main weakness of the situated cognition theory (Bereiter, 1997). In spite of a great deal of research, educationist still do not agree and do not know how to promote it (Winn, 1995). Beteiter (1997) argues that transfer is possible when an abstract relationship between two situations could be developed. Also one will learn to become a part of one situation better due to “improved attunements to affordances and constraints of the other” (Wise, 2010). On the issue of transfer, constructivist and social constructivist could be placed in a sliding scale although this is a complex as well as a debated process for situated cognition.

Teaching and Technology

The role of the teacher in these three learning environments could be used to compare and contrast teaching. In order to facilitate knowledge construction, constructivist and social constructivist will argue that the teacher would be expected to play the role of a facilitator.  The role of the teacher is not to transfer knowledge but to create an environment for students to construct knowledge (Jonassen, 1999) either on an individual basis, as a group or in a situational context. However, the amount of guidance that a teacher should provide is highly debated. Wise and O’Neill (2009) argue that high verses low guidance cannot provide a valid basis in assessing the fundamental principles in constructive teaching and contrasts this with instructivism (a term coined to highlight objectivist teaching).  These authors go on to suggest the consideration of the amount, timing and the context of instructional guidance that should reframe the argument between instructionism verses constructionism as an option for teaching depending on the context.  Mayer (2009) argues that active instruction may not necessarily lead to active learning, whilst iterating that passive teaching at times could lead to active learning. However, the overall role of the teacher in this realm revolves around presenting students with problem situations, allowing them to identify the core problem itself and guiding them in different levels as the situation demands for students to find a solution. As for situated cognition, the role of the teacher would be to help the student to be an apprentice in a given context (Hum, 2010). The teacher could place students to serve as apprentices in a given discipline teaching them to think like a professional or an expert in the field and exposing then to authentic learning situations where students could construct knowledge that is situation specific (Winn, 1995). One could reasonably argue for differing roles played by the teacher as a facilitator in a constructivist, social constructivist environment and as a master apprentice in situated cognitive environment. However, in all these learning environments, the teacher will work with the student/s giving them the opportunity to construct their own meanings or think like a professional in the knowledge construction process. The author argues that the role of the teacher is not significantly different but could be placed on a sliding scale in relation these roles as stipulated above.                

In terms of technology used to support teaching, each of the three theories will provide ample opportunities for educational technology media to be used productively to facilitate teaching. The Jasper Woodbury series is a good example of how technology media was used to design constructivist learning environments. The series of videos were used to help students become independent learners and problem solves. The Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) module (Lipponen, 2000) is yet another good example of how computers were used; technology media could be used to create collaborative learning environments as supported by social constructivist. Crook, (1998) as quoted in Lipponen, (2000), identified three principles of effective interaction; intimacy among participants, rich supply of external resources and histories of joint activities of those interacting that supports collaboration. Computers would be an excellent media to support this kind of collaboration. Similarly, there could be numerous examples on how Web 2.0 media has led to an explosion of collaborative knowledge creating opportunities. Gee (2005) presents a comprehensive argument why video games could be used to support situative cognition based learning. He argues that video games help students to be action, goal oriented individuals and simulation embodied experiences allow students to construct situational specific knowledge. The author points out that constructivist, social constructivist and situative cognition movements have dominated the use of educational technology media and the latter has also been instrumental in popularizing these learning theories in the recent past. Similar or same technology media could be used differently to support knowledge construction as advocated in these three learning theories placing educational technology in a sliding scale in its varied use to support teaching.  

Process of Design

In the previous sections the author placed the three theories under discussion on a sliding scale in how they viewed learning, knowledge construction, teaching and technology advocating constructionist epistemology. Since these theories fundamentally distance themselves from objectivist views, a common design criterion for instruction would be to consider ways and means of creating experiences that facilitate knowledge construction in the learning process (Jonnassen, 1999). Although there are views that advocate how instructional design (ID)  could support situated learning processes (Winn, 1995), considering instructionism verses constructivism based on the context (Wise and O’Neill, 2009), a common design thread that would tie all these views would be their pursuit in creating a constructive learning environment that support individual, group or contextual based knowledge.

In investigating the role that instructional goals in the design process, constructivist as highlighted in the Jasper Woodbury Series aspires the learner to generate their own sub goals necessary to achieve the bigger goal in solving the problem. In the social constructivist realm, the overall instructional goal would be to get the group to negotiate a solution to an identified problem through a process of social mediation. The group themselves will have to determine what factors of the problem should be focused and emphasise it in solving a defined problem. The mediation of a common solution will be a process where learners with different cultural backgrounds and values will negotiate and constructs common base of knowledge.  In situated cognition, the ultimate goal would be to get the learner to think like a professional who would solve the problem within a given context. (Brown et al, 1989). This again will allow the apprentice student to set their own goals as to how a professional would think but, these goals would be more contextual dependent than the other two views. The author sees the sliding scale once again applied in setting instructional goals between these three views.

Jonassen (1999) presented several components that would help build a constructivist learning environment. The author would argue that these components could help build instruction that support constructive, social constructive as well as situated cognition based views. Jonassen (1999) highlights the designing of the problem, as the starting point of the design environment. This is a fundamental point that differentiates these three views from other objectivist views where the problem derives learning than accepting previously taught principles. For constructivist, the current problem will provide an opportunity to relate to prior knowledge that was constructed and enhance the current knowledge by interpreting a meaning in solving the problem. The ability to manipulate the problem itself would motivate the learner to take ownership of the problem that would drive them in solving it (Jonassen, 1999). As for social constructivist, the problem will allow them as a starting point to negotiate a solution between different individuals in the group culminating the cycle of personal understanding and the cycle of social knowledge building. In situated cognition, the problem represents an authentic situation that allows real world problem solving. Presenting the problem therefore is an important starting point in designing instruction for these three learning theories.  

Jonassen (1999) further goes on to highlight the importance of providing cognitive tools, collaboration tools and social/contextual support systems in designing constructive learning environments. Cognitive tools will allow the learners in a constructive environment to better represent the problem, to refer to what they know about the problem as well as to gather important information to solve them. Collaborative tools will allow social constructivist to create opportunities for the learners to collaborate the social mediation process. The social and contextual support will allow all three views to accommodate environmental factors that affect the problem solving process. In situated cognition, the social and contextual factors will end up in the final product of the constructed knowledge while in the other two it will aid the process of knowledge construction.

Jonassen (1999) suggest modeling, coaching and scaffolding as specific instructional activities to support constructivist (1999) learning. Scaffolding could be used as an instructional activity to support all the three views in sliding scale. Scaffolding is a temporary framework to support learning which is gradually pulled out as the learner progress through the learning process. For constructivist and social constructivist environments, scaffolds would allow the individual learner as well as the group to separate the problem from symptoms, identifying the setting sub goals and to provide a framework to approach the problem. While the concept of scaffolding may not directly appeal to  situated cognition theories, in getting students to go through authentic learning contexts and subjecting them to apprentice situations, the designers of instruction could introduce scaffolding techniques to aid the learner to approach the problem in a context of what a professional would do.

The above aspects that were highlighted to aid the design process shows similar applications though used with a different emphasis for each of the three theories.  


In summarizing this argument, the author asserts that social constructivist stretches constructivist learning to include a social component to knowledge building. Situativity in turn allows constructivist and mainly the social constructivist to ground knowledge to a given situation. Constructivist allow us to think of “me”, whereas the social constructivist directs us to think of “me, you and cultures of people”. Situated cognition based theories include “me, you, cultures of people” with concepts, activities and culture (Brown et al, 1997) situated to a given context in viewing learning and the knowledge construction process.

In terms of teaching and technology, the author asserts the role of the teacher as fundamentally aiding students to construct knowledge in an individual, group or in a situational context within these three views. The examples where technology is used will indicate how media could be used as a sliding scale to highlight different emphasis as promoted by these theories.

In terms of the design process, the author highlighted how the three theories are tied together in terms of an overall philosophy to aid the construction of knowledge, setting instructional goals allowing the learner to define the problem as well as to present their own sub goals, using problem setting as a fundamental starting point of the design process, utilization of various tools such as scaffolding to aid instruction. The techniques presented could be used in varying degrees between these environments. 

The author asserts that constructivist, social constructivist and situated cognition ideas could be presented as a sliding scale in explaining learning, knowledge building, teaching, technology and designing instruction. A series of arguments were put forward in the above paragraphs to support this notion. This view of considering constructivist, social constructivist and situated cognition ideas as a sliding scale will create further opportunities to collaborate between these ideas in taking learning, technology and design to the next phase of development.  


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