Posted by: Michael Atkisson | October 14, 2010

Social Negotiation as a Central Principle of Constructivism

Social negotiation is a major principle of constructivism. Before I dive into why, I will first define what I mean by constructivism. Constructivism is an epistemology that maintains the construction of knowledge as its central metaphor. The construction is not a reproduction in the mind of an objective, external reality. To the contrary the construction of knowledge results from the subjective experience in the world.

Constructivism claims several principles at it base, including authenticity, ownership, and self-regulation. The roots of constructivism, however, focused on the construction of knowledge in the individual mind, but luminaries such as Bruner (1961) came along to introduce the social negotiation of knowledge, citing the ideas of Lev Vygotsky (1978) and his zone of proximal development, as a major component of learning.

The social negotiation of knowledge is a key part of knowledge construction in that it allows individuals to test their constructions against one another and to gain new understandings from one another. This occurs as they reflect upon the variance among their individual conceptions.

A good example of social negotiation of knowledge as a component of constructivism is the work that a group of students at a science summer camp did to create a scale model of the solar system as cited in Hay and Barab (2001). This group of students worked to build the model with authentic tools that astronomers use for the same purpose, so it was authentic. The learners developed ownership through their social negotiation of the solar system model because they worked together to figure out a way to represent the scale accurately in the development environment. Through social negotiation, the learners also self-regulated their learning goals and found solutions to problems.  They had to make executive-level decisions among themselves to decide what they had time to develop within the week time constraint. Furthermore, when solutions to technical problems emerged, they were quickly adopted by others in the group. Social negotiation mediated the learning that the campers developed as well as the relationship that they formed regarding the learning, such as ownership.

Some claim, however, that social negotiation of knowledge cannot account for all types of learning. For example, many point to transfer as a difficult feet to accomplish in constructivism. For one, it is difficult to conceive of transfer in a metaphor that assumes that knowledge is constructed from experience, rather than transferred from place to place. Secondly, it has been shown that socially negotiated construction of knowledge does not necessarily lend itself well to applying those knowledge constructions to new situations (or in strict terms, generating variants of the knowledge in novel situations). For example, after the solar system simulation campers had made their simulation, they were asked to create a scale model of the solar system on a piece of paper, and they did not make it to scale.

So, even if transfer were able to fit in the constructivist metaphor, how would that work? Wenger (1999), though not a constructivist, calls transfer flexible learning, which occurs through the social negotiation of identity. He claims that identity enables one to carry learning from one experience to another, and that identity is developed through the social negotiation of meaning. Therefore, the value of a learning environment is the extent to which in enables the social negotiation of meaning, which transforms identity, which enables transfer (or the construction of knowledge in novel situations). Even though, the notion of flexible learning is not strictly a constructivist idea, it does propose a way for constructivist to illustrate how socially constructed knowledge may be engaged again in novel situations to the extent that it initially has become meaningful and transformed one’s identity.


Bruner, J. S. (1961). The Act of Discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31(1), 21-32.

Hay, K. E., & Barab, S. A. (2001). Constructivism in Practice: A Comparison and Contrast of Apprenticeship and Constructionist Learning Environments. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 10(3), 281-322.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Chapter 6: Interaction between Learning and Development. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes (pp. 79-91). Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.


  1. […] and cognitive science (Gardner, 1987; Williams, 1987)? The eclectic round up of theories of constructivism (Hay & S. A. Barab, 2001)? The burgeoning field of the learning sciences (“Learning sciences […]

  2. […] For example, learning is derived through cognitive dissonance where knowledge evolves through social negotiation, and the evaluation or adjustment of one’s own understandings. These views differ from more […]

  3. […] of reality, Constructivists consider knowledge as a subjective construction of exterior reality (Atkisson, 2010). Subjectivity is a key point because it evokes the notion that individuals are part of and […]

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