Posts Tagged ‘individual’

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.