The four educators highlighted in my last post all ground their theories of experiential learning in a philosophy called constructivism. What is constructivism? Is it compatible with Christianity?
What follows are my in-progress ruminations on these questions. By no means have I found definitive answers. Regardless, I continue to think about these issues because they pertain both to my theological commitments as well as my educational pursuits. I should state outright that the thoughts that follow assume both the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
Constructivism is based upon the notion that human beings make meaning through interacting with their environments and the people within them. We come to know by interpreting our own experiences. Constructivism, in its purest sense, does not have room for a single, objective reality. Herein is where I believe to be the problem for Christians adopting pure constructivism.
Christians believe in an Ultimate reality, namely God, who is separate from the knower. Some knowledge is outside of us and even revealed to us by God. Christians also believe that God created the universe and all that it is in it. The existence of an objective, knowable, and measurable reality is a tenet of positivism, a philosophical position at the opposite end of the spectrum from constructivism.
Human observation and measurement of reality have their limits. For example, who has ever tried to measure God (cf. Job)? Christians also rely on faith is a mode of knowing beyond what the senses and reason can deduce from reality; therefore a purely positivistic stance toward knowledge poses problems for Christians as well. So where does that leave us if neither pure constructivism nor pure positivism works?
As I have reflected on that question, I have consistently returned to the doctrine of revelation as a starting point. God has given general revelation – what he says about His character and His intent within the created order – to people of all times and in all places. This general revelation helps point people toward God (Rom 1:19-20), but it is insufficient to lead them to a saving knowledge of God. Saving knowledge, given through special revelation, has been provided in and through the Word of God and ultimately through the incarnate Word, the Son, Jesus Christ (John 1:18). In His Word, God has instructed us how we can be in a restored relationship with Him through faith in Christ.
Even if we view God is the Source and Author of all knowledge, all knowledge has not been revealed by God. Scripture gives examples other ways of making meaning, of coming to know, besides revelation and direct instruction of objective truths. Consider also the presence of experiential learning within Scripture. In referring to the forty-year trek in the wilderness, Moses said to the Israelites:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you…He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on the very word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut 8:2-3, emphasis added)
The New Testament reiterates the role of experience, especially discipline, in our learning to be godly: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb 4:10-11, emphasis added). God sometimes uses discipline, a form of experience, to teach us. We come to know more about God, our sinfulness, and his desire for our holiness as we interpret the experience.
So, within Scripture, we find a little bit of both constructivism and positivism. We find justification for both instruction and construction. Are we caught in some ambiguous land in between the two philosophies? Ted Newell’s writing on this question has profoundly shaped my own thinking. He offers this suggestion: “One possibility is that Christian educators could recognize that knowledge is constructed by a process while denying that knowledge is only constructed.” Some knowledge takes the form of objective truth, but not all knowledge. Some knowledge can be instructed, but not all knowledge. Some knowledge can be constructed, but not all knowledge. Thus, Christian epistemology can be a hybrid form of positivism and constructivism.
What do these sorts of philosophical ramblings have to do with faith development? How does our understanding about meaning making affect pastoral care? I will take up these questions in my next post.