Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9) write, “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads”. I think that this statement is… misguided. If learning is happening anywhere, it is happening within individuals’ heads. Individuals are definitely a part of the social world, but to point out the social aspect of learning at the expense of individual learning is nothing short of a dismissal of constructivism.

There are two main forms of constructivism, and they are mutually compatible. (Note: I wrote this post before reading Akkerman et al (2007) and that has changed my way of thinking somewhat. For an update, please read this post Cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on group cognition: Can the two be reconciled?)

The first to appear was cognitive constructivism, as theorized by Jean Piaget1. Piaget was the first constructivist; he came up with the idea of constructivism, and he named it and described it.  At the time it was simply “constructivism” and Piaget said, “I am a constructivist. I think that knowledge is a matter of constant, new construction, by its interaction with reality, and that it is not pre-formed. There is a continuous creativity” (Piaget, n.d., in Papert, 2000, p. 2). According to Piaget, the two processes that make up the construction of knowledge are assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the absorption of new information and experiences by one’s existing cognitive structures. In this case, the new knowledge “fits” the existing structures so there is no need for modification of those structures. However, when the new knowledge does not “fit” the existing structures, the structures themselves can be altered to accommodate the new information. (Another possibility is that the new information will be ignored.) The final result of assimilation and accommodation is equilibrium, which lasts until we again experience cognitive conflict. According to Piaget, this system of assimilation and accommodation explains human learning from infant to adult.

We may ask where the new knowledge comes from. It comes from others – thru books, thru interactions with other people, thru searches on the Internet. It comes from interacting with society, and while Piaget believed the locus of construction to be in the individual, Vygotsky believed it was in society. Vygotskian constructivism is therefore known as sociocultural constructivism.

What do we find when we examine the two theories? The most crucial difference comes in the differences in weight that the two theorists placed on the role of society in learning. Piaget’s model of the social aspects of development link successful social experience with intellectual development, and referred to the importance of effective collaboration between pupils and the influence of culture and communication in learning (Smith, 1989, cited in Wood & Bennett, 1997). However, Piagetian constructivists (cognitive constructivists) focus on the individual as the cognizing subject. Individuals actively construct their own knowledge on the basis of new experiences interacting with existing cognitive structures.

For Vygotskian constructivists, the social world has primacy over the individual. Social constructivists see society as the bearer of cultural heritage without which the development of mind is impossible (Cole & Wertsch, 2004). Vygotsky saw learning as necessarily taking place within society and puts the emphasis on social interaction as the means by which learners construct knowledge.

However, both theorists did focus on the position of the individual learning in society. Piaget saw construction as taking place within the individual, who later tests his knowledge for viability by interacting with others. For Vygotsky, it occurs in the reverse order – the learning itself takes place in a social context and is then internalized by the individual (Dockett & Perry, 1996).

How, then, are we to resolve the issue of whether it is society or the individual in which the locus of learning resides? I say that it resides in the individual’s head, and that we as individuals are a part of society, and the societal impact on our learning cannot be ignored. Neither can we ignore the fact that when we walk away from a discussion from which we have learned something, either by assimilation or by accommodation, that the learning we have accomplished resides in our head. The constant comparing and contrasting of new information with our own knowledge takes place in our head. While the construction of the meaning took place with another individual, and may not have occurred without that interaction, the actual change that takes place is in the head of the individual.

So I’d like to point out that ignoring the construction of meaning in the heads of individuals is about as blind as ignoring the fact that one does a great deal of one’s learning with others. I see them as two sides of the same coin; the individual in society. You cannot take the individual out of society, and you cannot take learning out of the head of the individual.

So while we in CSCL are exploring how individuals learn in groups, I think that we must remember that groups are indeed made of individuals, and that while the construction of knowledge (i.e. learning) takes place because of and during interactions with others, that learning is quite definitely taking place within the head of the individual. We must look at both aspects of learning: the individual and the social. Social systems are made of nodes connected to each other. We cannot focus on the connections at the expense of the nodes; they are integral, and cannot be separated from each other.


Cole, M. & Wertsch (2004). Beyond the Individual-Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky.  Retrieved from

Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (1996). Young Children’s Construction of Knowledge, Australian Journal of Early Childhood 21(4), p. 6-11.

Papert, S. (1999). Child Psychologist Jean Piaget. Time Special Edition 2000. Retrieved from (audio translation provided courtesy of the University of Geneva’s Archives: Jean Piaget).

Smith, L. (1989). Changing Perspectives in Developmental Psychology. In C. DesForges (Ed.), Early Childhood Education, Monograph Series No. 4, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning: An historical perspective. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 409-426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Wood, E. & Bennett, N. (1998). Teachers’ Theories of Play: Constructivist or Social Constructivist? Early Child Development and Care 140 p. 17-30.

1 Piaget’s work is impossible to summarize because of the incredible volume of it. Go to Google Scholar and type in Piaget. You don’t need to type in his first name; there was only one Piaget. You’ll notice that the first page is entirely books, articles, monographs, etc. by Piaget. On the first page of Google Scholar only, he has been cited 39,861 times. Click on page 5, and 10, and 15. Click on page 20. Really, go do it now. I was amazed when I found that there is almost no end to Piaget. Has anyone else in history produced as much as this one man from Neuchatel, Switzerland? Has anyone else in history ever been cited this much? You may note that Vygotsky has an impressive 29,980 citations on his first page of Google Scholar. And we must remember that Vygotsky died at the very young age of 37. So perhaps it is unfair to compare them. And since they both wrote about the most important theory of learning ever explained, I won’t compare them more than is necessary, for they together make the whole that is known as constructivism. But Piaget came up with it first.

  1. Hi Jennifer – Thank you for your thoughtful post on constructivist paradigms. I like how you really took a position = pro Piaget! Well done.

    It’s funny, but the Stahl quote that “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individual’s heads” really resonated with me when I read the article.

    I do think there is a lot of learning that can happen individually. In order to prepare for a class, for example, it is often necessary to first engage with material on my own; I have to read, understand, formulate questions in my own mind, try to summarize material, try to synthesize material, and organize it in a way that makes good logical sense to me. By doing this preparation work, my experience in the social context of a classroom is much richer than if I had not done my own individual work first.

    However, my greatest “learning leaps” have taken place when I have tried to articulate a position to my peers, and then engaged in the process of negotiation and reformulation of my initial understandings in an effort to incorporate their ideas into my initial position. Even in responding to your blog post, I have entered into the social world by reading and then responding to your ideas. If I hadn’t chosen to post a comment, I would not have thought as deeply about your position, and considered how it is similar to or different from my own.

    Keep up the great work, Jennifer! I always enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    Thank you for your great comment! But I haven’t done a good job of explaining myself. I don’t think that individual learning happens often at all, if ever. For me, when I am preparing for a class, or doing some learning “on my own”, it’s not really on my own, not individual independent learning only. The books and articles I read were written by others, the websites I check were written by others, how much of this is really independent learning? Not much, if any at all. For me, it’s all social learning as the tools I use and the resources as well were all constructed by others.

    But the locus of learning is in my head, and every time I learn something, a change occurs in my cognitive structures/framework and that is in my head. If I’m talking with someone, maybe both us learn something, and therefore changes are happening for both if us, in our heads.

    Learning is almost always done socially, in my opinion, I can’t think of an example right now where meaning is totally independently constructed. Even brand new ideas spring off from older ideas, all constructed by others. This is all related to distributed cognition, which would be a great idea to cover in this course but I guess there isn’t enough time.

    By the way, you mentioned learning leaps when trying to explain something to someone else. Yes! I’ve had this experience too. They say that if you want to learn more about something, try to teach it to someone else. This is knowledge building, when the goal is not to improve your own knowledge but someone else’s. Well, it’s not a great example, as KB is usually done by peers in a group, but it’ll do. The learning that you do is a by-product of your knowledge building. I don’t know if you’ve gotten into KB yet but it’s fascinating to me, and we’re covering it as topic soon in P2PU! 🙂

    So I’m not really a cognitive constructivist (although I do love Piaget most because he was the first, and worked so hard, and produced so much of immense use in so many fields), I find both cognitive and social constructivism valid and necessary, and I cannot support either of them in isolation. My point of contention with Stahl et al’s quote “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individual’s heads” is that it seems that they are proposing that learning is taking place in the social world only, and for me this is just inconceivable.

    I don’t know if I’ve cleared things up or made them worse! Please let me know. Maybe I should work on my post a bit more so it’s clearer…

  3. Hi Jennifer –

    Your comment did clear things up for me. Obviously an either/or statement doesn’t work here. I guess some individuals might learn entirely on their own, like I’ve always imagined Copernicus or Newton or something, but most of us avail ourselves of resources like books and articles to help us further our understanding, which as you say, makes learning a social endeavour, not just an individual one.

    I think what Stahl might have been getting at, was CSCL tries to study the learning that takes place in the group, rather than the learning that takes place in individual’s heads. So doing individual pre-tests, having students work collaboratively in a group, and then doing an individual post-test isn’t an effective way of studying the learning of the group. So the question is, how can researchers design their research plan to capture and measure group learning, rather than individual learning?

    Thanks for a great response and a lively discussion!

    Cheers – Rebecca

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Thank you for writing back. I think Copernicus and Newton, and anyone who has brand new ideas, is certainly doing some individual thinking, but even that is based on what has been done before. The brand new original part has been created by them, but I don’t know if we can say it was created solely by them, as they learned a great deal from others before that, and if they hadn’t, their brand new original ideas wouldn’t have occurred to them. Scholars build on the work of previous scholars, we work on the problems of the day, of the time, that have been carved out for us by previous work (well, it’s not quite so predetermined as all that! But you get my drift 🙂 ). Then every now and then you have a revolution in scientific thought (or in any field) and everything gets turned upside down, and that must be quite a ride! I’d love to be around the next time something amazing happens in any field I’m interested in.

      I’m not saying that no original thought ever happens, I think it happens all the time! But to extricate it from what has been learned before from others would be so difficult to do, to me it speaks to the interconnectedness (Monica writes of connectionism below) of individual and social thought and the impossibility of their separation. “Mind in society” is one of Vygotsky’s main works and that is how I see it; the mind in constant dialogue with others, impossible to extricate from its social environment.

      Thank you so much for your comments, I have really enjoyed discussing this, and you have revitalized my interest in this topic. For it certainly raises some questions. What is original thought? Are any ideas ever conceived in isolation? What does this mean for teachers, for learners? Do we need to be in contact with people regularly to be learning socially or can it come from books, the Internet etc. alone? Do we need dialogue to build our ideas? If I read Principia Mathematica (which I haven’t, and I’m not likely to), is there some kind of dialogue going on between me and Newton? It would necessarily be a one-sided dialogue, but the thoughts that occur to me as I read Newton are like an inner dialogue, comparing what I knew before to what I am learning now; assimilating and accomodating. Is this inner thought similar to dialogue? Are the thought processes that I experience when I read Newton similar to those that I experience when I discuss a topic with someone? I think that they are similar, with the one difference being that with Newton, I can’t ask a question and get a response. But still, I think that the process is the same.

      Sorry, I had better stop here or this could get very long! It’s really great how dialogue forces us to clear up your thinking on something, and makes us think of new (new to us! 🙂 ) things too.

      Thanks again for a great discussion!

  4. Monica says:

    Hi Jen and Rebecca,
    I’ve also struggled with this issue (though silently) as I’ve read texts both on the definitions/approaches to learning in CSCL texts.
    I keep thinking back to a section in Bereiter’s book where he talks about the ‘learning paradox’ (Pascual-Leone, 1980; Bereiter, 1985), which poses a challenge constructivism:

    “If learners construct their own knowledge, how can they create cognitive structures more complex than those that they already possess?”

    In separate articles both Scardamalia and Bereiter argue that the most convincing solutions to this conundrum are those that call upon ideas of self-organization. I quote Scardamalia at length here to expand on this point:

    “New conceptual structures, like crystals and ant colonies, emerge through the
    interaction of simpler elements that do not singly or in combination represent the new concept (Sawyer, 2003). This became evident with the rise of connectionism in the late
    1980s (Bereiter, 1991). Connectionist models of learning and development
    characteristically generate progress from a conceptually impoverished to a conceptually
    richer system, sometimes by a process analogous to learning from experience and
    sometimes only by internal self-organization. Connectionist models are examples of the larger class of dynamic systems models, all of which attempt to deal in some rigorous way with emergent phenomena. The emergence of complexity from the interaction of simpler elements is found at all levels from the physico-chemical to the socio-cultural. If learning is paradoxical, so is practically everything else that goes on in the world.”

    So, if we look at both cognitive and social constructivism through the lens of connectionism, there is room for both to play a critical part, we all agree they certainly do.
    There is an interesting section in a book written by John Lewis Gaddis called “The Landscape of History” where he discusses ‘fractals’ and fractal geometry, and the idea derived from fractal geometry of “self-similarity across scale”. To explain: Gaddis talks about the problem posed by the question: “How long is the British coastline?” The answer is problematic because, of course, it depends on which units of measurement you will be using (and the coastline itself changes, as it’s made up of organic materials that change with weather and in relation to surrounding elements). To illustrate his point, Gaddis presents four different illustrations–from microscopic to macroscopic–of the British coastline. When pictured side by side, the degree of roughness or smoothness of the landscape is similar across scale– that is to say, each level retains complex patterns, and these patterns remain the same regardless of the scale at which one looks at them (think of looking down on an island from a plane, and then looking down really, really, closely on a cracked pavement or road). So, the connections and nodes that exist in a large social network are exceedingly complex and span a broad scale, and are ever-changing. But so are the neural connections and nodes that work on the level of an individual brain. This is the major argument behind Connectivism, if I’m right in my interpretation.

    So, I wonder if the tension we seem to be having with statements like “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads” is that it implies an overemphasis on looking at the macroscopic (social) landscape of learning, perhaps at the expense of the microscopic (individual)??

    • Thank you Monica, these are great observations. Fractals are amazing. It is so interesting that a historian is using Mandelbrot’s 1967 paper “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension” which I’ve attached above in Papers by Others. Just out of curiosity, what point was Gaddis making? (I checked out his book at Amazon, it looks great!)

      I think your analogy is excellent. If we look at learning in a macroscopic way, we’d see all the connections between all the nodes (nodes being people) and we’d have to come to the conclusion that the connections are very important. Whether this relates more to connectionism or connectivism I don’t know as I haven’t read enough about either of them yet. (In the meantime, what do you think?)

      On the other hand, if we choose to zoom in on one of the nodes, we’ll find a human being with a brain (which is a self-organizing system by the way ☺ ), that has its own neural network of nodes and connections. My point is that we cannot ignore the nodes in our current excitement over the connections. Perhaps we are focusing so much on the connections because a) the nodes (and our brains) have already received a fair amount of attention and although improvements to cognitive constructivism are constantly being made, the theory is in itself quite sound, and explains adequately how we construct meaning in our heads; b) The Internet and its possibilities for bringing people together for collaborative study is the biggest network in the world, and as such, the connections are very worthy of inspection, and they haven’t been described in half as much detail as learning in a cognitive way has been. Social constructivism seems to be the theme of the moment, and I am fully in favour of that, I just cringe when I read things like “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads” (Stahl et al, 2006, p. 9) because both the social and the individual aspects of learning are vitally important to understanding how we learn. And I agree with you that these days there is an overemphasis on the social landscape of learning (nice terminology, thank you!) at the expense of the individual.

      Well, the pendulum swings both ways, I imagine that in the future we will be looking at a more balanced portrayal of the importance of both cognitive and social constructivism. What I like about them both is that they form a kind of system, a network together. There is no such thing as a human outside of society; when humans have been found who have never met other humans, they are a different kind of human, with no language, very limited ways to communicate, and they are permanently damaged by their isolation, i.e. they can never catch up and join us. So it’s impossible to think of an individual without considering the individual in society. Likewise it’s impossible to have connections without nodes, so it would be quite foolish to discuss connections without referring to the individuals who make those connections happen. A bunch of connections is not a system, or a network, and neither is a bunch of nodes; it’s the nodes and the connections that together make a network, and this network is the basis for all the learning that we do.

      I really will have to read more about connectionism and connectivism soon and see what they have to say about networks.

      Thank you again very much for your post. Great posts make us think, and learn more, and in replying we learn still more, as Rebecca wrote above. It will be great to discuss Knowledge Building soon!

      Thanks again,

      • Monica says:

        Hi Jennifer,
        I think I’m going to write up a blog post about Gaddis’s argument just because I find it so intriguing. It’d be great to see what you think about it! Also, I started reading John Dron’s thesis paper “Achieving self-organization in networked-based learning environments” and I’m finding it super helpful in terms of thinking about issues like this. As he points out, depending on our own objectives it’s important we determine at what level or scale of a complex system we are focusing on, and how best to work within that particular plane. I’m wondering if it would be helpful for us to map out exactly where our interests lie with respect to the ‘bigger picture’… I haven’t got past the first third of the paper yet but I read through 67 pages straight yesterday so that tells me he’s hitting a nerve with me somewhere!!

        Also, just as an aside, I was hoping to get your thoughts on this. Chapter 2 of his thesis talks about ‘How Systems Change”. As I was reading this I kept thinking about these ideas with respect to self-organization of activist groups and the idea proposed by some on the far left that change can only occur by means of ‘violent’ action (ie. property damage or some type of radical action). In one section of the paper Dron talks about how innovation and disruptive forces typically occur in specialized niches that exist in semi-isolation from a hierarchical system’. However, the more channels of communication a system has that link its many or most of nodes together, the more flexible it is. However, the flexibility is not the type that allows the system to change but rather is one that can facilitate and “accommodate all measure of perturbations without disturbing it’s overall balance” (I instantly thought – neoliberal capitalism! what a wonderfully flexible system!)
        At this point I can’t offer any deep insights on this, but I was wondering what you think of the idea (with regards to educational systems or activist organizations) that “With too much connectivity between hierarchies and different hierarchical levels a single system develops rather than several isolated populations, thus preventing the formation of new species”…?

  5. Hi Monica,

    What a great post! Thank you so much! I just found John Dron’s thesis now and will print it and read it as soon as possible. This is exactly what I am interested in! Thank you so much, it looks like a fascinating piece of work.

    I think it would be irresponsible for me to reply now, not having read it yet; as well I am not familiar with connectivity between different hierarchical levels. So please give me a bit of time to read it and I will surely get back to you as soon as possible.

    This paper looks so interesting!! Thank you again, you have made my day!! 🙂


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