For this week’s iEarth journal club, we are reading the chapter ‘Education as Relational Process’, from Kenneth J. Gergen’s book ‘An Invitation to Social Construction‘. My thoughts below.
Before digging into the chapter itself, what is actually meant by “social construction”? The book starts out with very nice examples of how reality is socially constructed: If we see a black-and-white photo, does it actually show “the truth”, even though the world is really in color? If we see a portrait of someone, why do we only count it as a portrait if it shows the exact parts of a person that we expect, not, say, a close-up of their nostril? Can we really claim that the truth is that the Earth is round, or divided into seven continents?
How much of what we take as true is actually just something that everybody around us has agreed to at some point (but we could equally well have agreed on something else? To take an example from my reality; I grew up reading about “the seven seas”, then learned about “the five world oceans” in school, and now we have a couple of years ago agreed to have a “#WorldOceanDay” (with a singular s) because we want to focus on the connectedness and the whole system, rather than on more or less arbitrary boundaries. Approaching the world in a constructionist way means questioning truths and definitions, and being open to alternatives that change the way we perceive the world — and act in it.
One quote that I find really helpful is that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” — meanings of words change, a word can mean different things to different people, or even to the same person at different times, or depending on the tone it is spoken with. And also different depending on context: In the US, “how are you” does not require the same kind of response that I would tend to give to people just from hearing the question (as in — in the US it’s not even a question usually, then in some countries the appropriate answer might be “fine, and you?” and in others it would be an actual response to the question). And the way we talk about things is so important for how we actually think about them — see for example my post on “personal theories of teachers” (Fox, 1983).
But also many other things are socially constructed. For example, in Germany, at the end of a lecture or presentation, students knock on the tables instead of applauding. This would be very weird in other countries, and visitors to German universities are often baffled by this custom.
So if we are aware of all of the above, what follows logically (to me) is that we need to be open to deconstruct what we say and how we’ve always done things. So now on to the actual chapter about how knowledge is socially constructed!
Thinking back to the Fox article I link to above, obviously there are lots of things to deconstruct in education, in what it means to teach and learn. As mentioned in the chapter, for example, the traditional role of a teacher can be questioned, and we could start thinking of teachers as facilitators, coaches, friends, mentor, model; each of those with different implications for the relationship between teachers, students, and subject matter. Also of course the relationships between students are open to reconsideration; moving from the traditional competition towards collaboration and community. And also assessment needs to be re-thought. After really enjoying the examples of social construction at the beginning of the book and the thoughts they sparked in me, I feel a bit let-down by the chapter itself, as many of the ideas are so “old news” both for me and also for iEarth. Unfortunately, I’ll miss the discussions in the journal club, but I would have brought in my table for the “personal theories of teachers” (Fox, 1983) and discussed that instead :-D
Gergen, K. J. (2015). An invitation to social construction. An Invitation to Social Construction, 1-272.