Constructivist Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, And the Role of Authority Papers Index
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Arthur L. Dirks,   April 1, 1998
Cite as:
Dirks, Arthur L. (1998). Constructivist pedagogy, critical thinking, and the role of authority. Published on-line by author ( Bridgewater, MA. Accessed [date].
This paper originally prepared for CCT 601 Critical Thinking, Graduate College of Education, Univ. of Mass. Boston.


Most scholarship on learning today has come down on the side of a "constructivist" perspective, dismissing authoritarian models or received knowledge as an effective approach to learning. A century ago, the old recitation and tutorial system of scholasticism was founded on received knowledge, based in the power of acknowledged authority, the great minds of the past, to interpret experience. The learner was commonly penalized for too much variation from the text. With the advent of the research institution, we saw logical positivism transcend authority, in the sense of received knowledge, as a basis for judgment. Many scholars have now determined that knowledge, like Truth, is not objective, but socially constructed, and as such, it depends a great deal upon that which the learner brings to the experience and interactions with other knowers. In the terms of classical rhetoric, we appear to be shaking the power of ethos to shape our understanding of the world, and we are challenging the power of logos to fully interpret it without the support of pathos.

This paper examines the process of knowledge construction, particularly as it involves principles of critical thinking, and the role of the teacher. I pose two contrasting examples of matter to be learned and consider the operation of knowledge construction in each case. Finally, I suggest a linear model of the knowledge construction process and the role of the teacher in it.

Constructivist learning

A substantial volume of scholarship addresses the topic, describing it in much the same terms as Kerry Walters (1994, p. 14.):

The knowing subject is not a passive spectator who simply receives information that is anonymously processed in a formalistic black box. Instead, she brings to the act of knowing a complex set of presuppositions and commitments, and this set necessarily informs the type of information she concentrates on as well as the inflections she places on it. There is not, then, a radical separation between the knower and the object of knowing or the knower and the act of knowing.

In general, an individual goes about a process of constructing an understanding, based upon a complex mix of experiences, perspectives, and interactions. Somehow, the individual must find ways to develop a judgment regarding "what to believe or do," as Robert Ennis (1987, p. 10) defines critical thinking. In fact, if one follows the literature on learning, one might conclude that construction may be a necessary condition of learning, and if the construction of knowledge does not occur in the classroom, it will occur at some other point or learning may not occur at all.

Given the research and other support for the constructivist approach, it is difficult to ignore its importance. The implications are tremendous. It is a process exactly contrary to a passive, content-driven model of learning, a "student as vessel" approach. The requirement of active engagement of the learner in the process of constructing meaning, as opposed to the acquisition and retention of content, means that such ingrained teaching methods as the lecture may not play an important role in producing constructed knowledge. It is necessary that the learner actively manipulate the concepts and construct her or his own understanding, not simply take away content. While this does not exclude the possibility of the student constructing, following the lecture, her own understanding of the concepts, the lecture may do little to engender that construction. Further, the construction is likely to occur when the student is alone and not in interaction with other ideas. If the lecture continues to have value in supporting constructed learning, it is apparently much less central to the learning experience than we have typically considered.

There are many kinds of knowledge. In every field, in addition to value questions, there is much that is fixed, and one might assume more appropriately or efficiently learned through transfer-of-content approaches, such as the lecture. Cognitive retention studies seem to suggest, however, that a great deal of the content we deem important is not retained beyond the necessary demonstration for grading purposes. Lee Shulman (1998) says a study of retention of some 14,000 medical terms by medical students in Chicago delivered appalling results, forcing significant change in the way the instruction was delivered. Apparently, these students had not constructed actively, for themselves, meaning in this vocabulary.

Active learning can be managed at a marginal level, through discussion in the classroom. Learners can be engaged in discussion and manipulation of ideas through classroom experiences, resulting, one assumes, in a form of construction of knowledge. One might ensure the development of appropriate conclusions by controlling that process. Connie Missimer (1994, p. 127.) cites an example from a novel:

I recently ran across a marvelous sentence in a P.D. James mystery, The Black Tower, which neatly illustrates this point. "He reminded [Inspector] Dalgliesh of a school master he had much disliked who was given to initiating frank discussion as a matter of duty but always with the patronizing air of permitting a limited expression of unorthodox opinion provided the class came back within the allotted time to a proper conviction of the rightness of his own views."

It is not out of the question to suggest that when teachers use class discussion, as many of us pride ourselves on doing quite effectively, this characterization is more often the rule than the exception. Is it constructivist learning? Knowledge may be undergoing construction by the student, but the construction is hobbled by a criterion of appropriateness enforced by the teacher. If this is not the way learning should occur, as many scholars contend it is not, how might it be different without degenerating into relativistic definition and what has sometimes been called "trading of ignorances?" The answer may be that if critical thinking can be brought to bear on the process of construction of meaning, what is learned will be shaped within the context of the broader concepts and understanding.

Critical thinking and constructivist learning

The terms of the discussion of learning break down into what are essentially two or three camps. The first, as indicated, is the authoritarian model, which assumes there is an objective Truth, and knowledge and Truth are received. If not received, at least it emanates from the teacher, one who has studied the matter and knows Truth. While the weight of scholarship discounts the value of this approach, it remains the evident mode of instruction and is deeply ingrained in the worldview of many faculty. As department chair, I informed a faculty member, in his last semester before retirement, of a student complaint. In a perfect cliché, his response was a reverie on the "old days" when students quaked in the presence of the authority of the instructor. The lecture, for example, usually is a model for teaching with reference to this sort of authority.

The alternative approach, which is embraced by a significant body of scholars on learning, is the constructivist approach described above. If knowledge is to be constructed by the learner, according to the tenets of contructivism, it is not simply an active experience for the learner in manipulating the ideas, but it occurs as a result of what is generally termed critical thinking. There are two conflicting approaches to critical thinking currently under discussion in the literature: the "logicistic" approach, and what might be termed the "connected" approach.

Walters (1994) describes the logicistic approach as an objective stance, purporting to attempt to be fair minded and impartial. He argues that it removes the terms of the discussion from their context and abstracts them, it tends to be adversarial and promotes intolerance, and it fails to accommodate other practices important in good thinking, such as nonanalytical modes. Walters points to a second wave of scholars who argue for the impossibility of objectivity, the importance of personal involvement of the learner, and the need for social interaction of knowers in the construction process.

Hostetler (1994) distinguishes objectivism as the logicistic approach, from non-objectivism. Warren (1994) distinguishes between reasoning and thinking. Clinchy (1994) cites her work with others in Women's Ways of Knowing (1986) in distinguishing the logicistic kind of thinking as separate knowing, and a more embracing view as connected knowing. Missimer (1994) distinguishes between the individual view of critical thinking, and the social view in much the same terms. To be sure, each of these perspectives bears some distinctive nuance of meaning, but all of them contrast primarily what Walters terms the logicistic approach with an approach that brings into play the context of the perspectives, concern for alternative perspectives, and the lived experience of the learner. Further, while distinguishing severely rational approaches from more socially located approaches, all the authors recognize the importance of both approaches, usually working together.


At this point, it would be well to pose some examples. I routinely teach a course in stagecraft, which is primarily an orientation to processes and structures used in producing events for the stage, and a senior capstone seminar in contemporary American theatre, intended to help students synthesize their educational experiences. Neither class typically exceeds fifteen students, and both are required in a theatre major. In the seminar I briefly examine aesthetic theory on the nature of art and ask students to come to terms with a definition. Often students retreat to complete personal relativism, defining art as whatever one thinks it is. In the stagecraft course I teach a unit on creating and reading scaled drawings, or "drafting." The difficulty for students lies in the ability to use the well-established conventions of technical drawing, as well as in the ability to move between three-dimensional reality and two-dimensional, scaled representations. The challenge, then, is to take these two kinds of knowledge - one fundamentally objective and well-defined, and the other highly subjective and poorly defined (if at all) - and see how they might be pursued in constructivist approaches.

What is art?

The question of "what is art," is evident as a worldview question. If one cannot determine a convincing definition of art, as an entire branch of philosophy has been attempting to do for nearly a century, how might one avoid complete relativism?

Clinchy (1994, p. 34.) identifies one stage of development or mode of knowing, particularly for women, as subjectivism. These individuals

. . . look inside themselves for knowledge. They are their own authorities. For them, truth is internal, in the heart or in the gut. As with Perry's Multiplists, truth is personal: You have your truths, and I have mine. The subjectivist . . . carries the residue of her experience in her gut in the form of intuition and trusts her intuitions.

Clinchy points out that these knowers are not really thinking. I will argue they are not constructing knowledge at all. They have a store of experience, but they are not thinking with that experience or using it as the base for constructing new learning, nor are they engaging alternative perspectives.

The first step in the process is for the learner to open up to possible alternative interpretations. Clinchy (1994) argues that a connected knower begins the process by empathetically agreeing with alternative perspectives, then judging them. The process is characterized by withholding judgment; first believing, then doubting. Because believing and doubting, or accepting and judging, are understood to be mutually exclusive processes, only through deliberately withholding judgment can the individual fully comprehend the framework and perspective of the alternative argument. Once one develops this comprehension, evaluation and judgment can follow. How, then, does one go about making judgments in the doubting process?

The social view of knowledge, by definition, requires the learner to measure a perspective against competing perspectives. Missimer (1994, p. 120) argues that the standard for judging a particular argument is its adequacy in light of alternative arguments, completely understood:

Within this Social framework, the person doing critical thinking does not see out of the eye of one argument alone (monoscopic vision), but must see a hypothesis from the point of view of two or more arguments or lenses (stereoscopic, even multiscopic vision).

Proper evaluation of these multiple explanations requires a substantial body of understanding and background in the subject. Missimer notes (p. 127) that "it is virtually impossible for someone unaware of the rich, intricate accretion of theories in a subject to estimate whether a given argument 'adequately takes account of alternative arguments,' much less to construct such an argument." Students, then, must acquire a background in the matter in order to think critically in this Social view. While Missimer argues against critical thinking being discipline-specific, it's difficult to escape the emphasis on a knowledge base as a frame of reference.

The placement of a perspective in the context of a larger theoretical framework suggests strong connection with the work of Kenneth Bruffee (1993) who describes "knowledge communities" that bear many of the features of academic disciplines. He defines these communities in terms of the "conversation" that takes place. Citing Richard Rorty and Karen Knorr-Cretina, he describes the cohesion in a knowledge community as a "social occurrence" that emerges from "interaction and negotiation with others" (pp. 130-131). He points out that each knowledge community has its own language, and fluency in the language defines membership. "Language" and "conversation" are not strictly linguistic phenomena, but cognitive engagement among members of the knowledge community. He goes on to contend that the practice of teaching is that of acculturating others to that conversation.

Returning to the question at hand, that of defining art, how might the learner move from subjectivism to connected knowing? If one follows these principles, the learner first encounters alternative perspectives on the topic and empathetically enters into them. In my experience, student ability to engage these ideas is highly variable, depending upon factors of preparedness for abstract thinking and approaches to the introduction and presentation of the ideas. In the second stage, where there is a connection between the learner and the range of ideas, the learner must sort them out, constructing for herself a meaningful definition. For some students, particularly those who were unable to connect, this sorting-through is quite difficult, often lapsing into subjectivism. As a teacher, my interest is helping students avoid the subjectivist trap. If Bruffee is correct, then my responsibility is to help the student understand and participate in the disciplinary conversation about the nature of art.

Learning to draft

The drafting question may be considered one of reasoning, but not, as Warren (1994, p. 222) might contend, a matter of thinking. He distinguishes reasoning as an exercise in rationality and calculation, and thinking as characterized by reflection, ponderment, or feeling. "Reasoning is bent on measuring; thinking is a quest for meaning." On the surface, there would not appear to be alternative perspectives in the drafting question, and "meaning" is not an evident component. There are "reasons" for the steps and aspects of the processes, refinements that exist because they facilitate efficiency and effectiveness. It may be that Warren's "reasoning" is an appropriate concept to describe learning in this instance.

How might one go about engendering "construction" of the knowledge of drafting conventions on the part of the student? An active learning experience would seem important, whereby the student uses, not simply apprehends (in contrast to comprehends), the processes being taught. The student can't be led through all the experiences that indicate the need for the specific conventions, though many can be replicated. The tension, then, is between the importance of learning specific aspects, and the time available to commit to them. There are many, apparently minor conventions, such as placement of the title block, what it includes, the difference in line weight for construction lines and dimension lines, the orientation of dimension lettering, and the conventions for expressing dimensions, for example. Each convention has a reason, and it is quite tempting to present the reasons authoritatively, expecting them to be followed unquestioningly.

My experience has been that students find it difficult to internalize, or really comprehend these conventions until, either they have been led to reason through, individually and personally, why and how the conventions are prescribed, or until they actually have to work from an inadequately drawn representation. In other words, there really are alternative approaches, and students are quite inventive in developing them. Learners need to consider presented approaches as alternative ways of drawing in contrast to the intuitive approach they might create to resolve an immediate problem. Then they can reasonably conclude through experience, which alternative is most appropriate. It is then that they have constructed knowledge for themselves. Failing in this constructive process, their drawings are typically uneven in the application of the principles.

Some students grasp the principles quickly and accurately, while others struggle to do exactly as they are told in order to get a good grade. These latter students have lapsed into a purely authoritarian model, and they have not succeeded in constructing the knowledge sufficiently to own it. It will be forgotten quickly. It is important to understand here that learning is a matter of degree, not a binary conclusion. Knowledge may be well-constructed, thoroughly constructed, poorly constructed, and even, in some cases, erroneously constructed. Shulman (1998) cites the well-known film in which Harvard students at commencement are asked to account for the seasons. An overwhelming number of them say the seasons occur because the earth is closer to the sun in summer than in winter. He also cites the very large number of educated adults who think acquired traits can be passed on genetically. When viewed through the lens of knowledge construction, these become fascinating examples of how knowledge construction can occur. These understandings were not founded on scientific perspectives, even though the knowers had been taught good science over many years, and even though they had probably answered many test items on these very issues correctly. I suggest what occurred was that knowledge may not have been adequately constructed through the formal education process. It was not owned truly by the knowers, internalized, and integrated into their worldviews. Or knowledge had been reconstructed based upon intuitive or other easily accessible frameworks that had come to displace the formal education experience. Perhaps both occurred.

The teacher's role

The role of the teacher is to engender learning by supporting the student in this construction process. A linear model might look like this:

Steps in the construction of knowledge: Supporting activity of the teacher:
(a) Exposure to alternative perspectives Ensure alternative perspectives are accessible readily to students
(b) Empathetic experience of entering into those perspectives for understanding Establish a conducive environment and encourage the student to empathetically enter the alternative perspectives
(c) Understanding of the body of theory relating to the subject Provide access to the "conversation of the knowledge community"
(d) Evaluation of the alternatives through reflection and critical thinking Enable the social environment in which cognitive interactions and dialogic processes can evaluate the alternatives
(e) Construction of a personal perspective, the matter that is learned Provide incentives to encourage learners to complete the knowledge construction process

The clarity of each step above is more observed in the model than in practice. As thinking beings we are functioning at multiple levels and addressing multiple questions nearly simultaneously. Our mental functions move among the steps rapidly, addressing minor and major aspects in a flurry of considerations, evaluations, reflections and conclusions, each result forming more raw material for other considerations and constructions.

Each individual has her or his own pace and ability to negotiate the process, but as a process it also can be learned - or constructed by the learner - if it is subject to deliberate attention and consideration. An additional part of the teacher's role, then, is to assist learners in reflecting upon and improving their thinking/knowledge-construction processes as they are constructing their understandings.

Turning to the matter of authority in teaching and learning, it is important to distinguish how the term is used. The idea of authority that constructivists reject clearly is the idea that the learner simply relies upon external authority as a basis for knowledge. One knows what one is told, which one has accepted uncritically. On the other hand, the idea of authority as a quality that is possessed by a knower, would not be contradictory to thinking critically or the constructivist learning process.

Bruffee (1993) considers the idea of authority, providing a definition that goes beyond received knowledge. He sees authority as resting upon one's intimacy of membership with a given knowledge community, thereby enabling the richest conversation within the community. This "nonfoundational" basis for authority differs from the "foundational" bases which generally derive from proximity to great minds, great things, incontestable methodologies, or God.

The teacher, then, possesses authority, and it is this authority that allows her or him to engage in the supporting activity suggested above. The scholars and authors who provide the body of theory and alternative perspectives for the learner to consider possess authority in Bruffee's sense. In the multidimensional space of knowledge around any matter, the learner may also possess authority in some aspects, particularly those based in personal experience.

If I consider it important for the student to construct her own, non-subjectivist definition of art, one that is meaningful and that will become a factor in shaping her own work as an artist and in judging the efforts of others, I must design my approach to the matter with greater care. A handful of condensations of aesthetic theory, some discussion, a parade of examples, and "what do you think?", followed by my critical evaluation of responses, is insufficiently supportive for constructing the knowledge intended.

By the same token, if I consider it important for the student to understand clearly the conventions of drafting, I must find ways for students to test alternatives for themselves. It may be insufficient to provide students with a drafting exercise and a sheet of conventional rules, augmented by occasional "it's better this way because . . ." discussions. There is much work to be done.


This paper has examined the idea of constructivist learning, and its involvement with critical thinking. Current theory in critical thinking provides a structure for developing knowledge construction, and suggests important factors to consider in instructional design. Authority is important as a quality possessed by the knower, and not as an exclusive criterion of what is to be known or how it is understood. In fact, authority might be defined as thoroughly constructed knowledge, a goal of the learning process itself. With this framework in place, attention can be focused on the approaches and activities of teaching that will support the constructive process of the learner.

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Bruffee, K. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, Md., Johns Hopkins University Press.

Clinchy, B. M. (1994). On critical thinking and connected knowing. In Re-Thinking reason: New perspectives on critical thinking. K. S. Walters. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press: 34-42.

Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice. J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg. New York, W. H. Freeman: 9-26.

Hostetler, K. (1994). Community and neutrality in critical thought: a nonobjectivist view on the conduct and teaching of critical thinking. In Re-Thinking reason: New perspectives on critical thinking. K. S. Walters. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press: 135-154.

Missimer, C. (1994). Why two heads are better than one: Philosphical and pedagogical implications of a social view of critical thinking. In Re-Thinking reason: New perspectives on critical thinking. K. S. Walters. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press: 119-133.

Shulman, L. (1998). Taking learning seriously. American Association for Higher Education annual conference, Atlanta, GA.

Walters, K. S. (1994). Introduction: Beyond logicisim in critical thinking. In Re-Thinking reason: New perspectives in critical thinking. K. S. Walter. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press: 1-22.

Warren, T. (1994). Critical thinking beyond reasoning: Restoring virtue to thought. In Re-Thinking reason: New perspectives on critical thinking. K. S. Walters. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press: 221-231.

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