Posts Tagged ‘social constructivism’

In a recent blog post (Ode to Piaget), I tried to explain the source of my frustration with a quote from Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9), who write, “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads.” I wrote that in the cognitive constructivist view of learning, the locus of cognition is indeed in individuals’ heads and to ignore this is unlikely to produce anything of value in understanding how any kind of cognition works, group cognition included. Individuals have brains and cognitive models which represent and structure our individual knowledge. These structures are constantly changing as we learn new things. Assimilation and accommodation are constantly occurring, and any theory of cognition, including group cognition, must acknowledge these cognitive processes. However, events are also occurring at a group level that cannot be explained by investigation at the individual level (Gureckis & Goldstone, 2006; Thompson & Fine, 1999). It seems that there are two levels of activity, one at the individual level, and one at the group level. Doesn’t an account of group cognition need to take both of these levels of activity into account?

I needed to do some more reading on these topics, as I was finding Stahl et al (2006) were not explaining group cognition in a way that was useful to me. I found several articles that have been of immense help, and so this blog post is to summarize the main points of one main article (I had hoped to include more in this post, but instead will do so in later posts) and integrate them into my own thinking.

The first and extremely helpful and insightful paper has clarified the issue of cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on learning in an objective way. The article titled, “Reconsidering group cognition: From conceptual confusion to a boundary area between cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives?” by Akkerman, Van den Bossche, Admiraal, Gijselaers, Segers, Simons & Kirschner (2007) is a review of all the major studies of empirical studies of group cognition. The articles they review run from pre-1994 to 2002, so more recent studies of group cognition have not been included, but the 22 studies out of a total of 167 represent well the body of research that has been done on group cognition until 2002.

Akkerman et al (2007, p. 42) explain in detail the two “socio-genic views” (Valsiner & Van der Veer, 2000): cognitive and socio-cultural. I will include only a brief extract here:

“[T]here is the axiomatic preference for fusion (of person and the social environment) or inclusive separation (i.e., the person is viewed as distinguished from the environment, yet interdependent with it) bases for socio-genetic models” (Valsiner & Van der Veer, 2000, p. 6). Whereas the former socio-genetic view perceives the person and the social environment as one whole and relies on terms like participation and adaptation, the latter socio-genetic view perceives the person and the social environment as separate units that are related to each other and uses terms such as internalization and externalization.

The former, fusion, represents the socio-cultural perspective on learning. This has also been associated with the participation metaphor (Sfard, 1998) and a focus on learning within social interaction. The inclusive separation model represents the cognitive perspective, aligned with the acquisition metaphor (Sfard, 1998), with its focus on learning within the mind. Both of these perspectives are represented well in the empirical studies of group cognition reviewed by Akkerman et al (2007). In their review, 11 studies represented cognitive perspectives and 5 studies represented socio-cultural perspectives. 4 represented both, and 3 of these are considered to be “boundary crossing studies” as they “were able to pursue a mixed discourse of both cognitive as well as socio-cultural perspectives on mind throughout the whole study” (p. 48).

Here are summaries of the reviews made by Akkerman et al (2007). Please see tables 1 and 4 below for a more detailed perspective.

Cognitive perspectives: Studies reviewed by Akkerman et al (2007) refer to the knowledge of the individual team members as it is constructed in mental models. In this perspective, it is assumed that individual people “organize knowledge into structured, meaningful patterns and store them in their memory” (p. 45). Group cognition is conceptualized by these cognitive studies as “a similarity or overlap between individual mental structures” (p. 49). Group cognition occurs at the group level but relies heavily on the individual as entity. There is a focus on “similarity” in the methodologies of all the cognitive studies, “with the underlying hypothesis that the more similarity in the identified knowledge structures of the individuals, the better the team functions” (p. 49).1

Socio-cultural perspectives: All studies focused solely on group cognition and did not determine the cognition of individual members. Instead they focused on the whole of contributions made during the interactions. The question was “how group participants acted on, and thereby defined the specific domain or object of activity” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 47). Socio-cultural perspectives as described by Akkerman et al (2007, p. 50) perceive group cognition as something “constituted by the group as an entity in itself. As such, cognition resides in the active mind, as a phenomenon situated in the group interaction. The concept [of] group cognition is then defined as a process of coordination of participants’ contributions in joint activity (Matusov, 1996)”. In this view, Akkerman et al (2007, p. 50) write, “using similar modes of thinking is argued to lead to reproductive processes, with the danger of group think narrowness, while disruptions resulting from different views of participants and socio-cultural subgroups are perceived as offering potential for productive, creative processes and group development2 (Homan, 2001; Matusov, 1996)”.

In addition to cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives, Akkerman et al (2007) discovered a third group of studies which they label “boundary crossing” literature because of the integration of both cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives throughout the study. They focus both on “stable mental model forms with information stored in memory and mental model states that are active and situated in the group collaboration” (p. 51). In these studies, shared information is considered to be distributed. “What they were able to do was to decompose subsystems within the whole complex system of a team and reveal their inherent properties, while simultaneously revealing the intrinsic nature of the complex system itself, separately from the subsystems. On the one hand, they identified individual subjectivities in terms of stable cognitive maps, and on the other hand they identified group processes in terms of the individual mental states situated in the interaction. So in a very precise and clear way they integrated in their focus the intrinsic nature of decomposable subsystems and the intrinsic nature of the whole system.” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 53).

These boundary crossing studies would seem to be what I have been looking for: an integrated system that allows for two intersecting levels of activity, one at the individual level and one at the group level. However, while these studies do incorporate cognitive perspectives, they do not fully represent the socio-cultural perspective because they treat cognition as decomposable. Cognition in these studies is treated as happening at two levels and is seen as separable and analyzable at the two levels, whereas this kind of separation or decomposing is anathema to the socio-cultural perspective. The socio-cultural perspective does recognize the individual mind, but sees it as non-extractable from its situated perspective. “Socio-cultural perspectives do not deny the existence of an individuals’ mind, nor its agency, but they understand this mind as situated in the participation processes in systems of socially organized activity that are themselves evolving” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 43).

When we look closer at the ontological assumptions underlying the two perspectives, we get to the root of the problem. According to Packer and Goicoechea (2000, cited in Akkerman, 2007, p. 54), “Cognitive perspectives imply a dualist ontological approach, in which construction is viewed only as a cognitive activity in which subjectivity structures and shapes data that comes from a distinct and separate objective world. As opposed to that, socio-cultural perspectives bring forward a non-dualistic ontological approach, in which subjectivities and the objects themselves are constructed and mutually define each other…. Cognitive perspectives seem to assume that things (e.g., individuals or mental models) can exist independently, although it can change by its relations. Socio-cultural perspectives seem to assume an ontology in which things only exist in relation to other things (individuals are participants; minds are situated in social action).”

Akkerman et al (2007) conclude their review with their vital question, “Is it advisable to strive for a coherent theory on group cognition, or is it better to have the two perspectives, as the differences are insurmountable?” One answer to this question is that the two perspectives could possibly be reconciled through dialogical engagement. In this view, each of the two perspectives reaches towards the other and tries to incorporate its views into its own views. This was done to some extent by the boundary-crossing studies identified in this review. As well, “Valsiner and Van der Veer (2000) and Hermans and Kempen (1993) … [consider] the individual as a dialogical system by itself. Cognition is then defined as an individual property, but the individual itself is an inherently social entity, constituted through its social relations with others” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 55). While these studies represent attempts to reconcile the two perspectives, the underlying problems of ontology and locus of learning remain unsolved.

The other two possible answers are essentially yes, they can be reconciled, and no, they cannot, and it is this latter answer that Akkerman et al agree with, and so do I. The two perspectives cannot be reconciled because of the very different ontological views and where each places the locus of learning. However, I have not yet read Valsiner and Van der Veer (2000) nor Hermans and Kempen (1993), and to me these offer the most hope of reconciliation. I will read these in the near future and hope for new insight. But the central questions keep returning. Can we ignore the disparate ontologies underlying the two perspectives? How can we combine two perspectives into one when they are so fundamentally different?

Finally, we can ask here the critical socio-genetic question posed by Valsiner and Van der Veer (2000, p. 6), and asked by Akkerman et al as well (p. 56): “How to construe persons as being social without abandoning their obvious personal autonomy, separateness from any social unit (group, crowd, community), while being members of such units?”

So now my frustration with the statement made by Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9), “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads” has been explained. I am a cognitivist who situates learning within the heads of individuals, who are themselves situated in society and various groups. I see cognition happening at two levels, one at the individual level and one at the group level. I see these as necessarily connected but separable for the purposes of analyzing what is happening at each level. In contrast, Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006) have a socio-cultural perspective and as such see cognition as inseparable from the context in which it is happening. Our fundamental views of group cognition differ, and now at least I understand the differences more clearly.

I hope this summary is useful to anyone who is trying to understand group cognition and the various views of it. If you have any articles to share that would help to illuminate this discussion further, please do post a comment below. This is a mighty adventure for me and intensely interesting. Here we are in late spring of 2011, considering whether the two main perspectives of learning can be reconciled into one theory. In my previous post, I wrote that cognitive constructivism and social constructivism are mutually compatible. I wonder now if I will have to revisit that post and do some rethinking. I may also have to do some rethinking of my future in CSCL research if indeed CSCL requires a socio-cultural perspective, as Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006) indicate above.

In any case, thank you for reading and please do leave a comment below if this kind of exploration is interesting to you.


Akkerman, S., Van den Bossche, P., Admiraal, W., Gijselaers, W., Segers, M., Simons, R.-J., & Kirschner (2007). Reconsidering group cognition: From conceptual confusion to a boundary area between cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives? Educational Research Review, 2(1), 39-63. Available at

Banks, A. P., & Millward, L. J. (2000). Running shared mental models as a distributed cognitive process. British Journal of Psychology, 91, 513–531.

Derry, S. J., DuRussel, L. A., & O’Donnell, A. M. (1998). Individual and distributed cognitions in interdisciplinary teamwork: A developing case study and emerging theory. Educational Psychology Review, 10, 25–56. Available at

Gureckis, T.M., and Goldstone, R.L. (2006). Thinking in Groups. Pragmatics and Cognition, 14: 293–311. Reprinted as Gureckis, T.M. and Goldstone, R.L. (2008) Thinking in Groups. In Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends our Minds, Edited by Dror, I.E. and Harnad, S., John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Hermans, H. J. M., & Kempen, H. J. G. (1993). The dialogical self: Meaning as movement. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Homan, T. (2001). Teamleren. Theorie en facilitatie. [Teamlearning. Theory and facilitation]. Schoonhoven, the Netherlands: Academic Services.

Matusov, E. (1996). Intersubjectivity without agreement. Mind, Culture and Activity, 3, 25–45.

Packer, M. J., & Goicoechea, J. (2000). Sociocultural and constructivist theories of learning: Ontology, not just epistemology. Educational Psychologist, 35, 227–241. Available at

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

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the danger of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27, 4–13.

Thompson, L., & Fine, G. A. (1999). Socially shared cognition, affect, and behavior: A review and integration. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 278–302.

Valsiner, J., & Van der Veer, R. (2000). The social mind. Construction of the idea. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yoo, Y., & Kanawattanachai, P. (2001). Developments of transactive memory systems and collective mind in virtual teams. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 9, 187–208. Available at

1 This hypothesis contrasts with Gureckis and Goldstone (2006) who found that less information-sharing benefited the group in small world networks.

2 This is more in line with Gureckis and Goldstone (2006), and my own way of thinking. Diversity within groups is an asset. I had planned to incorporate Gureckis and Goldstone (2006) into this summary but was unable to because of number of issues raised by Akkerman et al. I’ll return to Gureckis and Goldstone in the near future.

3 Please note that I have read only Akkerman et al (2007), Gureckis and Goldstone (2006), and Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers (2006) thus far. All other references were referred to within the text of Akkerman et al (2007).


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.