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What is really true? A Lesson in Understanding Constructivism

Lloyd Rieber
The University of Georgia


There is an interesting courtroom scene from the movie A Few Good Men in which Lt. j.g. Daniel A. Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) is questioning Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep (played by Jack Nicholson) about what he knows about the deaths of a Marine soldier):

Nicholson: 'You want answers?'
Cruise: 'I think I'm entitled.'
Nicholson: 'You want answers?'
Cruise: 'I want the truth!'
Nicholson: 'You can't handle the truth!'
Here is an Audio Clip taken from ""

Can you handle the truth? Perhaps a better question is just exactly what makes something true?


The goal of this lesson

The purpose of this short lesson is to acquaint you with a philosophical orientation to learning referred to as "constructivism" and to consider its implications to education. After you finish this lesson, you should be able to:

A short exercise

To begin, I'd like you to complete a little exercise. It begins with two questions:

1. consider and declare what was your favorite subject when you were a student in public school (any grade through high school);
2. pick one thing from that subject you believe to be irrefutable, that is, something that everyone (even an expert) agrees to be true.

Hopefully, you can complete this with two or three friends or classmates. Take a few minutes to compare your answers. Many people come up with all sorts of interesting statements of fact, ranging from mathematics (e.g. 2+2=4) to language (e.g. each sentence must contain a subject and a verb) and history (e.g. Columbus discovered America in 1492). However, there is one final question I would you like you to answer:

3) Explain how you, personally, know it to be true. Put another way, how would you convince a skeptic of its truthfulness or validity?

This is a rather unnerving challenge. So many things we accept to be true without really questioning the validity of the statements. Good examples come from math and science, such as the world is round and it travels around the sun. I read somewhere that someone once asked the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein how it could have been people could have been so stupid to have believed that the sun revolved around the earth. He is said to have responded, "I agree, but I wonder what it would look like if the sun really did revolve around the earth?" The point being, that it would look exactly the same.

Do you agree with this "fact"?

Here's one fact that I dare say would be judged by most people as being true beyond refute: "The sum of the interior angles of any triangle equals 180 degrees." This is something we all learned in school. But how do you know it to be true? You could draw a triangle on a sheet of paper and measure the angles. But this is just one triangle, how do you know it to be true of all triangles? So, you draw many triangles, measuring each one carefully. Perhaps you even use a tool such as Geometer's Sketchpad which allows you to construct and test literally thousands of triangles in a matter of seconds. But those are just small triangles drawn on paper or the computer screen,. How do you know it to be also true of large triangles? Perhaps you take some string and construct triangles that fill a table, a room, or someone's backyard. But these are still relatively small triangles, what about really big triangles, measuring miles along a side? Let's jump to an extreme case. If you start at the north pole and stretch a piece of string to the equator, turn left 90 degrees, walk around one quarter of the way around the globe, then turn left 90 degrees again you will eventually find yourself back at the north pole. The triangle you have constructed will have three interior angles measuring 270 degrees!

Of course, you will say that I have tricked you and that the curvature of the earth got in the way. That argument only makes sense when you have a certain perspective on things, because as you are pulling the string, it certainly appears straight from where you are standing. A new perspective or understanding can lead to a changing of the "truth." (Incidentally, this is not really a trick. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, as I understand it, says that space is curved in the presence of a gravitational field, so the angles of triangles, even as you originally understand them, do not *really* measure 180 degrees.)

This is a good point to bring up the concept of "viability versus truth," because many ideas are viable in the everyday world and ought to be taught. Another good example is Newton's laws of motion. These are still viable, even though they are no longer considered "true" by physicists, because they have practical uses.

So, as our understanding of something increases, truth itself can change. The phrase "You are what you know" aptly captures the importance of epistemological questions, such as "what does it mean to "know" something?". However, curricular questions about what should be taught and why are not always perfectly aligned with the "truthfulness" of the content. However, there remain appropriate reasons to teach certain content in schools even through they are no longer accepted as true (i.e. Newton's laws of motion) because the ideas remain useful and meaningful in many contexts. In other words, the ideas are viable. However, a constructivist teacher is more concerned about the meanings that his/her students have about content and seeks to use these meanings as the seeds for greater understanding. A constructivist teacher knows that "teaching" is really a misnomer -- one cannot really teach something to somebody else (a la pouring information into somebody's head). In a sense, individuals teach themselves in a social context. Instead, a teacher's responsibility is to facilitate learning by providing lots of interesting opportunities for meanings to be formed, shared, and discussed. This does not mean that education should be a "free for all" where all ideas have equal standing. The concept of viability shows that some ideas are more viable than others under certain conditions. But this is a very different attitude that simply saying that students are "wrong."

Do you wonder what would happen if you could change the philosophy of school?

What would the institution of "school" look like if its philosophy changed to constructivism? Would there even be schools? Here's a chance to learn more about the implications of these philosophies on educational practice. Instead of just reading about it, here is a light-hearted simulation of these principles for you to experience.

Click here to run SimSchool.


In groups of two or three, discuss the concepts expressed in this lesson. Here are some possible questions to consider:

(I hope, by now, that the irony of designing a lesson about constructivism has not been lost!)

Follow-up Activity

Read this short chapter by ErnstVon Glaserfeld. It explains and discusses the concept of viability:

von Glasersfeld, E. (1993). Questions and answers about radical constructivism. In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education, (pp. 23-38). Washington, DC: AAAS Press.

Read this chapter by me (Lloyd Rieber). It explains and discusses constructivism in the context of instructional technology:

Rieber, L. P. (1993). A pragmatic view of instructional technology. In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education, (pp. 193-212). Washington, DC: AAAS Press.

Copyright 1998 Lloyd Rieber


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