The learning sciences (Sawyer, 2006) have brought together many divergent fields of inquiry, each with its own beliefs about the world, knowledge and learning. This diversity of perspectives is desirable because no one discipline has the monopoly on the truth. However this does present some paradoxes for the field as a whole and will stifle any attempt at integrating the disciplines into a unified and coherent theory of learning.
Learning and beliefs about knowledge
Legacies of behaviorism mean that learning is still largely operationalized as the result of some intervention. Cognitivists allow that mental representations mediate the outside world, which is a significant step forward, however they still retain much of the positivist outlook: They have a conflicted relationship to human agency and intentionality (Dennett, 1987). For positivists and many post-positivists, knowledge is still defined as a function of the outside world. Complicated phenomena are reducible to simple explanations; phenomena are causally related; and knowledge is equated with explanation.
These assumptions contrast with the principles of a constructivist stance. Learning is an active, meaning-making process where the learner is engaged in the construction of knowledge. Constructivism (Vygotsky, 1962; 1978), with its roots in historical materialism, situates knowledge within the human world. Knowledge is a function of humanity's intentions towards the world. There is the natural world, and there is the world of humanity, which is a world that is for humans in the sense that it has meaning but only insofar as humans give it meaning and that meaning is tied up with the world that we make. Knowledge construction and meaning-making are creative processes that shape the world. Theses processes create and re-create the world in the process of representing the world of our senses to our faculties. Knowledge construction is intimately related to the processes of meaning-making, hence knowledge is not merely the representation of the world, every representation involves some re-presentation, it is not simply vorhanden (present or at hand) but is necessarily zuhanden (ready at hand, in the sense of a tool) as well, imbued with intentionality (c.f. Heidegger, 1996 but also Hegel, 1977; Marx & Engels, 1978). The world is literally what we make of it.
Misconceptions about constructivism
There are many misconceptions about constructivism that arise from an improper grasp of its foundational philosophic stance. Two frequent ones are that constructivism leads to epistemological relativism and that constructivism promotes anarchy.
The accusations of epistemological relativism stem from the fact that learners construct and re-construct knowledge as they appropriate their world. This is erroneous for two reasons. (1) This conflates epistemological and psychological constructivism. One is a theory of knowledge and the other, a theory of learning. (2) Science and other modes of knowing rest on some socially agreed upon methods for making claims and warrants for the justification, verification, and/or the falsification of knowledge (see Popper (1962) and Lakatos (1978)). To claim that the knowledge constructed by individual learners is the same is to state that their warrants are not differentiable but this is clearly not the case. However their differentiability rests on some accepted mode of evidentiary reasoning but constructivism as psychological theory of learning does not dictate how we come to agree upon as inter-subjective knowledge.
That constructivism promotes anarchy rests on even more tenuous grounds than the latter objection. Constructivism posits that the learner must be actively engaged in the construction of knowledge. Constructivism as a psychological theory of learning has informed instructional theory and design though constructivism is not a theory of instruction. Constructivism is the frame of reference for learning environments as diverse as guided discovery, situated learning, cooperative learning, and project-based learning. Constructivist principles of learning are implemented in each approach in different ways with very different results. A constructivist learning environment can range from small group work to whole class discussion to teacher-led Socratic dialogue and can look like very many different things in practice. More to the point, student centeredness in classroom learning should not be confused with student-directed activity. Active learning should not be confused with student physical activity. In a cognitive sense, a student can be actively engaged in a dialogue or in a lecture for that matter. These are all false dichotomies that contrast traditional transmissive pedagogies with progressive constructivist positions. Just as intersubjective knowledge should not be confused with subjective knowledge, one pedagogy is not necessarily exclusive of the other.
The role of agency
A constructivist philosophy of learning has implications for the way the learning sciences community conducts research but, in this context, the issue is more nuanced.
The social phenomenon of learning is to be distinguished from organic or biological learning. Meaningful learning invokes language. There is no meaningful learning of consequence that is not mediated by language. The type of biological learning that is the focus of behaviorist approaches cannot account for verbal behavior (Chomsky, 1968). Humans as a meaning-making species engage in such symbolic rule-based activity that is endlessly creative and combinatorially complex. Human symbolic rule-based activity is more than just the inputs. It is perhaps possible to define human agency in this sence too: Human agency is the remainder of the output when all the inputs have been accounted for. Human creativity is reliant on agency. This is the reason why human action cannot be accounted for by recourse to causal explanation alone. Human action is goal-directed, aimed at ends (Von Wright, 1971). The study of meaningful learning must account for the agency of the learner.
Humans are capable of both kinds of learning. We engage in the biological learning unconsciously. We can even be conditioned to react to stimulus in ways contrary to good reason (see the infamous case of Little Albert (Watson & Rayner, 1920)). We can train people through rote learning to develop quite complicated skills like reading or writing but it is hard to train students to engage in higher-order cognitive tasks like planning, evaluating, or creating using such procedural mechanisms (Newmann, 1987). Although this may be the case, it is equally true that people do indeed learn to do such things and can improve. However such skills develop insitu, people learn to do these things in goal-directed activity. The activity, and by extension, the learning, is meaningful in some very narrow way. Meaningful learning is purposeful activity. It is therefore imperative to distinguish between the kind of learning that we are interested in studying.
The context of learning: situated learning and community of learners
The study of meaningful learning is largely done in the field. Research on communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Resta & LaferriÃ¨re, 2007) and communities of learners (Brown & Campione, 1996) are concerned with how people appropriate modes of disciplinary discourse. The emphasis on language and community are the hallmark of constructivist programs of research. This is true of research on inquiry instruction (Aulls & Shore, 2007; Shore, Aulls & Delcourt, 2007) as well.
Cognitivist programs of research are concerned with the appropriation of skills or with the description of certain modes of thinking and of representation. Self-regulated learning (Azevedo, Moos, Johnson, & Chauncey, 2010), personal epistemology (Muis, 2007), attributional retraining (Hall, Perry, Chipperfield, Clifton, & Haynes, 2006), achievement goals (Ranellucci, Muis, Duffy, Wang, Sampasivam, & Franco, submitted), achievement emotions (Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier, 2009), are examples of cognitivist programs of research.
The process of instruction: content, assessment/evaluation, roles, environments
Learning environments suffer from a lack of alignment between the curriculum, modes of assessment and evaluation, and modes of instruction (Anderson, 2002). Contemporary curricula aim at learning for understanding and at fostering life-long learners adapted to the demands of rapidly evolving technological, information age. Conventional modes of assessment and evaluation favor a surface approach to learning, that is rote learning, memorizing of facts and procedures, at the expense of deep learning, i.e. learning for understanding. This is the legacy of behaviorist principles of learning. Constructivist learning environments (Biggs, 1996) need authentic modes of assessment and evaluation that foster the deep conceptual understanding and the critical skills and modes of thought necessary to operate in complex social ecologies.
Planning/Designing interventions: research and practice
Much learning sciences research and learning-science-informed instructional practice still falls under the positivistic paradigm and the epitomes of the controlled randomized trials experimental methodologies in research and the transmission model of instruction in practice. One major assumption that underlay experimental methodologies is that behavior manifested in a controlled environment can be generalized to the population as a whole; indeed, that behavior is transferable from context to another but this is a big assumption and it is far from having been unquestionably verified (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). And this goes for instructional design as well.
If meaningful learning is situated, goal-directed, and dependent on the agency of the learner it becomes hard to imagine how really meaningful learning can submit to the stringent requirements of experimental methodologies. If a participant is simply asked to follow steps in a procedural fashion, how can the learner develop a coherent, "meaningful", representation of the task? How can the learner develop a sense of the purpose of the activity? How can the learner plan, create, or evaluate when he or she does not know the parameters or the goals of the tasks?
Researchers and practitioners in the learning sciences must do more than espouse constructivist principles. If this is indeed to be the chosen theoretical framework, it is imperative that the learning sciences community be consistent in the application of these principles.