| Von Glasersfeld's answers - October 2002  |




Dr. von Glasersfeld,

I've only recently been introduced to constructivism in the process of getting licensure to teach but I feel that it is very close to personal theories that I began to develop in high school after reading on Buddhism.

I've taken several graduate courses in Cultural Anthropology in the process of studying human evolution and I've always had difficulty with the concept of Culture. I can see how it makes sense to think of culture as an emergent property of a group of people. This is a proposition that has worked well for me in the past (but then I'm not a cultural anthropologist so I haven't thought about it too terribly hard.) I do believe in emergent properties, particularly with respect to ecology and evolution (I would like to study system theory some day.) But according to radical constructivism (which I think is my preferred brand of constructivism) culture only exists in the mind of the individual, yes? This seems to align radical constructivism with a reductionistic approach to culture. Is this right or am I making a mistake somewhere here? Culture is a notoriously slippery concept, I think. Have you managed to get your grip on it and could you help me?

Thank you,
Jenn Jordan

Dear Ms. Jordan,

According to the anthropologists and ethologists I have read or known, a main point in the definition of "culture" is that it is transmitted from generation to generation, not by genes, but by interactive learning. Accepting this, I would say that the adaptive accommodations a child makes in social interactions comprise everything that could be called "culture".

Which of these social accommodations are part of "the culture" and which are not, is a question about which one could argue forever. When I was young, culture included good manners and taste (or style). Today television has successfully eliminated both. - You have to make your own choice about that. As far as I can see, it has nothing to do with reductionism, which refers to the attempt to reduce everything to a few physical elements.

Best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld




I am imformatic Engineering student and so interested on modelling and simulation. I want to work on a project related to opening learning university sudent and the effects of the differents factors that could be involded in his learning process, for example, the self-study, self evaluation, share experiences with classmate, goverment policies and others. All of the variable are cualitative, from my point of view.
The question is: Could I simulate conditions taking into account this kind of model( no measurable variables)? Have you worked on a similar project?. I really appreciate your help on this.


Colombia-South America

Dear Mr. Gutierrez,

Your question could be answered much better by a social psychologist. You would have to find criteria with quantifiable scales for self-evaluation, sharing experiences, transformed into political pressures, etc. Some of these exist, but I would advise you to study them and then develop your own, using situational characteristics rather than questionnaires. Qualitative variables can often be transformed into quantitative ones of the are really well defined. I have not worked on projects like this; that is why I advise you to look for help with a social psychologist.

Best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld



Dr. von Glaserfeld,

To what extent do you feel that Piaget's theories of learning can be applied to "hands-on" (on-the-job) training in the clinical environment for health professions?

Thank you for your consideration.
-kathy kath


Dear Ms. Kath,

If you have read anything about Piaget's constructivism or mine, you must have noticed that there is a big difference between teaching and training. Teaching attempts to generate understanding (a mental affair) in the student; training aims at getting the student to repeat specific behaviors which may be physical or linguistic. - In the "health professions" (which today would more honestly be called health businesses), training has led to the point where diagnoses are made by machines and the prescriptions are fixed a priori without any attempt to understand the specific situation of the patient. Anything you can pick up from Piaget would be useful!

Best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld




What do you see as the connection between the much debated notion of being able to 'teach' thinking skills and the theor(ies)y of constructivism?

Thanks in advance

Dear Deesh (?)

Constructivism is a theory of what thinking produces (which is sometimes called knowledge). It maintains that teaching - and this would include teaching thinking - cannot do more than help students to find their own ways of operating and acting successfully. Teaching thinking, therefore, can consist only in providing situations for students in which the particular way of thinking that the teacher holds to be desirable is likely to be successful. Thoughts are conceptual composites that cannot be transferred from one head to another.

Best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld



Sehr geehrter Herr von Glasersfeld,

ich bin blutige Anfaengerin des Radikalen Konstruktivismus, den ich ueber den Umweg der Kommunikationslehre entdeckt habe, und ich bin begeistert von seinen Ideen. Nichtsdestotrotz kaempfe ich mit einer Frage, auf die ich Sie um Antwort bitte:
Wenn sich jeder bewusst ist, dass seine Wirklichkeit nur sein eigenes persoenliches Konstrukt ist, so faehrt das, wie Sie selber, aber auch Watzlawick ausfuehren, zu Verantwortungsgefuehl fuer die eigenen Handlungen und zu Toleranz den Wirklichkeiten der anderen gegenueber. Was aber, wenn verschiedene Wirklichkeiten aufeinanderprallen? Wenn Kritik an mich herangetragen wird? Argumentiere ich dann fuer mich selber, dass das eben die Wirklichkeit des anderen sei und damit sein Problem, so bin ich nicht tolerant und auch nicht verantwortungsbewusst, sondern arrogant, ignorant, egoistisch und egozentrisch. In letzter Konsequenz fuehrt das zu einer Art der passiven Negation der anderen, wie Elster sie beschreibt. Ich habe in der konstruktivistischen Literatur nach Loesungen gesucht und eine bei von Foerster gefunden: Wirklichkeit = Gemeinschaft und eine andere in einer Aussage von Watzlawick, der Mensch fuehlte sich in einem tiefe ethischen Sinne verantwortlich fuer seine bewusste Welt. Doch tritt mit solchen Aussagen der Konstruktivismus nicht in seine eigene Falle der Rueckbezueglichkeit weil auch ethische Prinzipien und die Empfindung der Gemeinschaft letztlich nichts anderes sind als Ausfluesse konstruierter Wirklichkeiten? Wie also schafft der Konstruktivismus den Brueckenschlag zu den anderen?

Mit der Bitte um Entschuldigung, dass ich meine Fragen auf Deutsch stelle (weil ich leider die passenden englichen Fachausdruecke nicht kenne) und dankbar fuer die Moeglichkeit diese Fragen ueberhaupt stellen zu duerfen

verbleibe ich
Mit freundlichen Gruessen

Ulrike Gelbmann

Dear Ms. Gelbmann,

As this forum is largely for readers of English and Italian, I summarize your main question and answer it in English.
If everyone's experiential reality is nothing but his or her own construction, it may increase the sense of individual responsibility but does it not also lead to egocentrism and disregard for other people's reality - especially when one is criticized?

From the constructivist perspective the world we experience, inclusive of others and society, is indeed each individual's own construction. But this construction is not free or unfettered. Just as we construct our physical environment as a network of paths along which we can move without encumbrance, i.e. between constraints, so do we construct others and our social environment in the space between the obstacles they present for us.

In other words, we have to take seriously their objections and criticism, because in countless ways we need their collaboration (or non-aggression) in order to achieve our own purposes.

But don't forget, from the constructivist point of view we can never find out what the others are 'really' like, because all we have from them are our interpretations of what we see, hear, and feel about them.

Best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld



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