Ernst von Glasersfeld
Von Glasersfeld identifies himself as a radical constructivist. The use of the word radical in the term benefits from a brief explanation. Von Glasersfeld says,
To claim that one's theory of knowing is true, in the traditional sense of representing a state or feature of an experiencer-independent world, would be perjury for a radical constructivist....One of the central points of the theory is precisely that this kind of "truth", can never be claimed for the knowledge (or any piece of it) that human reason produces. To mark this radical departure, I have in the last few years taken to calling my orientation a theory of knowing rather than a "theory of knowledge. (2003)

This makes clear that von Glasersfeld’s use of the term radical is what Merriam-Webster refers to as the third definition of the term, “marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional” (2005). However, having become acquainted with von Glasersfeld’s love of verbal precision, and knowing of his command of at least four languages, I have a hunch he also likes using the word radical because of its first two definitions: “relating to, or proceeding from a root” and “of or relating to the origin : FUNDAMENTAL” (2005). Thus, von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism may be considered a rooted, fundamental knowing that one can not know anything outside of experience, a radical departure in the philosophy of knowing.
Radical constructivism holds that we each build, or construct, our own world, including our field of knowledge and our own education, one experience at a time. Furthermore, we cannot assume that the knowing we create for and within ourselves has any relationship to the objective reality which exists outside of our realm of experience, or to the knowing that is being constructed in the minds of others. In this sense constructivism connects intimately with experiential learning, for, as von Glasersfeld says,
the experiential world, be it that of everyday life or of the laboratory, constitutes the testing ground for our ideas (cognitive structures). And, like burglars all trying to break into the same building to get at the loot, we may all get in a different way, and each of us will be able to say “I know the way in” even if our ways in are all different.

This metaphor of each of us being a burglar is sometimes combined by von Glasersfeld (1983, 1984) with the metaphor of each of us needing to make our own unique key that fits, or works, to give us access to, to unlock, an otherwise locked reality.
If, on the other hand, we say that something fits, we have in mind a different relation. A key fits if it opens the lock. The fit describes a capacity of the key, not of the lock. Thanks to professional burglars, we know only too well that there are many keys that are shaped quite differently from ours but nevertheless unlock our doors. The metaphor is crude, but it serves quite well to bring into relief the difference I want to explicate. From the radical constructivist point of view, all of us -- scientists, philosophers, laymen, school children, animals, indeed any kind of living organism - face our environment as the burglar faces a lock that he has to unlock in order to get at the loot.(1984)

And each of has a different key which we’ve built based on our own experiences. My key may be nothing like yours, even though they both will work to open the same lock. Also, there’s no way to judge whose key is better or right. Just as in the ancient story of the blind men and the elephant, in which each feels a different part of the animal and claims to know what it is.7
In other words, my reality is what has happened within me and has come through me, my embodied self. I cannot come out of my self, look around at some objective reality and assess how well that matches up with what I’m constructing in my own mind. I likewise cannot crawl around inside the mind of another to see how the realities we’ve each created for and through and within ourselves compare.
Now, link this back to Trochim’s work. If I can’t establish any relationship between these variables (my mind, objective reality, the mind of another), how can I reach even the most fundamental level of validity, Conclusion validity, regarding theories I have about them, including theories of proof about what they consist of or what’s inside them (testing)? And without Conclusion validity, I can’t have the other three.
Another important concept von Glasersfeld presents, especially important for the educational community, is that of the two kinds of information, and the related distinctions of teaching from training, and learning from understanding. Von Glasersfeld has identified two kinds of information: conventional, and that which is based on rational operations.
Conventional information is the sort that you could not possibly discover by yourself outside of cultural context, as it has to do with societal conventions, such as driving on the right side of the road. Conventional information is also, he says, political. Some of what we need to learn to get along in the world, and some of what is taught in schools is necessarily conventional information. Everything from the location of the rest room to the spelling of the word though to the fact that a red light means stop falls into this category. This kind of information must be learned and memorized verbatim, and von Glasersfeld distinguishes the learning of conventional information as training.
The other kind of information, that which may be discovered by rational operations, is not political or is politically neutral (my words) such as the need to sleep, the existence of gravity or the understanding that 2+2=4. This is the sort of information individuals can discover for themselves, in a process which von Glasersfeld calls conceptual learning because you literally learn to conceive thoughts for yourself.
Here’s the key: von Glasersfeld says that
“Whatever is conventional must be learned, so to speak, verbatim; what is based on rational operations, should be understood”(2005). When we as educators are helping a learner memorize conventional information verbatim, we are engaged in training. It is only when we help a learner discover, construct and understand for herself, information which is based on rational operations, that we are teaching. Regarding traditional education and the learning of conventional information, von Glasersfeld says,
It is indeed the form of learning that is generally preferred. It is preferred, for the simple reason that its results are easy to test. When students can repeat something verbatim, it is obvious that they have learned it. - Whether they have understood it, is a question these tests avoid. (2005)

As I wrote earlier, when we understand something, we “grasp the meaning” of it, we “have thorough or technical acquaintance with or expertness in the practice of “ the thing, or we have become “thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of” it (Merriam-Webster, 2005). In other words, when we understand information, we have use of it.
And herein lies a huge problem. The story at the beginning of this section illustrates what happens when education makes no distinction between the two kinds of information, nor teaching from training, nor learning from understanding. Since that morning at the coffeeshop, I’ve presented the concept of what makes a square number to scores of people, and invariably a number of people in the group have exactly the same surprised response. They clearly had learned their multiplication tables verbatim, but did they ever truly understand them? Is it possible that traditional education is structured to deprive learners of exactly the kind of knowing and understanding we as educators want them to have?
But there’s another problem here as well. Looking at the above point of von Glasersfeld’s and linking it to Trochim’s validity theory, let’s construct a typical scenario. If I present information in a classroom setting, and my students memorize the information (training) and pass a test proving they have memorized (learned verbatim) the information, I have, perhaps, Conclusion and Internal validity. That is, there is a possible relationship, and perhaps a causal one, between my presenting the information to the students and then receiving completed tests from these same students with the said information accurately represented. Even this is tenuous, though, one example being that some of the students may have been familiar with the information before I presented it.
An even greater problem comes when we try to take validity to the next level, Construct validity. As von Glasersfeld points out, I can have no idea from these test results about whether any of my students in this scenario have understood any of the information I’ve presented. Assuming that our goal as educators is to promote understanding, and to foster, as von Glasersfeld says, “the ability to think” (2005), did I teach what I really meant to teach, and have I measured what I really meant to measure? This scenario, so typical in traditional education, and into which countless hours and dollars have been invested, is completely lacking in Construct validity. And furthermore, because it lacks Construct validity, it cannot have External validity. That is, we cannot assume that presenting the same material in the same way and testing for it in the same way will constitute a valid effort with other people, in other places and at other times. As educators and social scientists, we might ask ourselves what responsibility we have if we discover that we are participating in a system so lacking in the validity established by and for our very own field. Put another way, has education become a system which does not even play by its own rules?
Furthermore, whenever we as educators present the kind of information which can be learned by rational operations as if it were conventional information, not only do we train instead of teach, we potentially confuse the learner, and at the very least we risk depriving her of the critical process of arriving at and integrating the information in a way that effectively relates to her construction of her own world. The reverse is true as well. When something which is cultural and arbitrary, something which must be learned through training, such as writing from left to right, is not presented as such, a student may waste considerable energy trying to figure out the logic of it, when there in fact is none.
Another point of von Glasersfeld’s that I find relevant to me study is the idea that there can be no understanding without reflection. Dewey (1938), Bateson (1994) and Kolb (1984) all emphasize the importance of reflection in the process of building understanding, but von Glasersfeld maintains that r
eflection is induced by verbalization and can therefore be encouraged by fostering conversation (2005). I agree with all these theorists on the importance of reflection, and working with this aspect of learning theory during my practicum gave me a new appreciation for this important process. However, I’m not personally convinced that reflection requires the action of conversation or verbal processing. I believe that reflection can be just as legitimate, although its character may be different, when done through non-verbal action, such as a directed activity (painting, playing music, walking or knitting) or an undirected activity (such as watching leaves fall).
As von Glasersfeld elaborates upon reflection, he explains its place in constructivism:

From the constructivist point of view, creating concepts is a form of construction - and construction, under all circumstances, involves reflection. In this context, reflection means to become aware of connections that it is possible to make by coordinating sensory elements or mental operations. Piaget generally speaks of "coordination". And this, obviously, is done by a MIND. Many of these coordinations quickly turn into habits and are then carried out without conscious awareness. (2005)

Two other points here interest me, especially in light of my original question: that of the importance of coordinating sensory elements and the idea of how conscious awareness relates to our construction of concepts. Elaborating on the last point, von Glasersfeld says that as we construct our individual worlds,

We build that world for the most part unawares, simply because we do not know how we do it. That ignorance is quite unnecessary. Radical constructivism maintains...that the operations by means of which we assemble our experiential world can be explored, and that an awareness of this operating... can help us do it differently and, perhaps, better. (1984)

As we will see, Gladwell and Claxton, whose theories on thinking and learning I discuss below, make a similar point about bringing our processes of thinking and learning into conscious awareness in order to change them from involuntary to conscious activities. My next theorist, Bateson, writes of this as well, but in examination of the process of improvisation.

The Violinist

I met a violin player who was interested in getting together to play some music. We set a date. A week or so before, she called to say that if I could send her a copy of the music a few days ahead of time, she'd be able to look it over and prepare.
I was dumbfounded. In the musical world of my experience, which consisted of a variety of popular styles, even a chord chart was relatively rare, except among jazz musicians. I told the violinist that I didn't even know yet what we were going to play, that I thought we'd just get together and jam--meaning I'd tell her the key and whether it was blues, major or minor, count off the tempo, that sort of thing. I suppose I could put together some chord charts, I told her.
"Oh, I could never do that" she said, "without written music I won't know what to play". I could hardly believe it. This woman was a noted teacher and an accomplished musician, but she could not improvise, could not play by feel, could not engage in open exploration through her instrument, nor follow a line of intention as it unfolded from within the self and manifest it in her playing. To me, this was a substantial part of what being a musican was.
We were from different worlds with different traditions. She was only familiar with, and only comfortable functioning within, a very specific structure (as was I; if she had presented me with pages of written music I would not have been prepared for it). But, because I had a popular music background and had been writing songs and improvising for years, it seemed to me that limiting yourself only to music that someone else had written down for you was like learning how to speak but only being able to recite a script someone else had written, or being a painter who only paints copies of the paintings of others.

The man who holds the tail insists it is a rope. The man who holds the leg says he is touching a tree. The man who touches the body claims to have a barrel. The man holding the trunk says he has a hose; the man with the ear, a leaf.

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