Does Constructivism have limits?


If you do everything for kids, they’ll never learn, right? Wrong.

Ethan Guzman

Everyday interactions consist of an exchange of symbols both verbal and nonverbal, how we interpret those symbols depends on our culture and level of understanding. Biology affords children the tools to construct the meaning of these interactions. However, children alone can’t fully understand both the syntactical and semantical meaning of these exchanges without a template. How parents teach their children to most effectively gain this template changes from cohort to cohort. Each claiming that their way of parenting is the most effective, but how can we settle this debate? Luckily, Science can guide parents to the processes that best utilize the pressure points in their child’s development.

Although someone may tell you learning a new language is hard, if you have ever talked to a parent they would tell you to imagine potty training a toddler. Some parents wonder if kids are genuinely listening to them, or if the instructions are going in one ear and out the other. This prompts parents to allow children to operate under their own guidelines letting their children reap what they sow. In the previous example, allowing them to wear diapers until they get teased in kindergarten. While no parent wants their kid to have a tough go of it, some reason that the frustration felt, or in this case embarrassment, by the child is their best teacher.

This way of teaching is not wrong; it is supported by science, cognitive scientists’ reason that “Children discover many strategies themselves while trying to come up with answers to everyday problems” (Bjorklund, Causey, 2018, 266). Moreover, Vygotsky, a psychologist whose work is the foundation for much of the discipline that makes up cognitive development, believed that learning falls into a process called a dialectic. A dialectic is the inner turmoil one feels when trying to incorporate new information into their knowledge base of previous experiences, otherwise known as semantic memory. Vygotsky believed that most of the information children learn from are presented through interactions within one’s cultures via social interaction or language. Once discrepant information is presented children enter into a state of Antithesis or discomfort.

This discomfort motivates a person to internalize their experience and adapt their schemas or prior knowledge. Again using the example, the potential embarrassment the child will feel, not meeting cultural expectations will motivate them to potty train. However, children attempt to make sense of this discrepant information by making it pertinent to themselves. In other words, children need to know the intention and means of such information to be able to understand its purpose. For example, children need to know why having control of your bladder is important for them in order to adapt their thinking. To accomplish this, children engage in private speech or repeating instructions until it fits into their schemas. Vygotsky believed that children had completed the dialect once the information had been synthesized. Once they can understand that acting a certain way is adaptive for them, they will continue to apply the same strategy to the same problem. Returning to our example if children learn that potty training is beneficial to them and are motivated to learn, they will.

While this is true, the domain-general abilities that children possess allow them to be diverse learners. What I mean is, children don’t need to directly live through an experience in order to learn from it. Children do not necessarily need to be ridiculed by their peers to understand that being potty trained is a socially desirable trait. Humans have a set of neurons that are thought to be the foundation of social learning. These neurons are called mirror neurons; they are described as activating “when one person observes another person express an emotion..” while also activating for both  “…goal-directed behavior and for meaningless actions” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, 414). Meaning that children can learn vicariously through other members of their culture. Children learn how to overcome obstacles by watching other members of their society overcome that same obstacle. Children can learn to regulate their own behavior (potty training) by watching Adults use the restroom correctly. In fact, that’s exactly what children do according to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory.

Bandura broke down four processes in the overall arc of successful observational learning. Those being the ability to attend to the right kind of information, having the mechanism to code the stimuli into one’s memory, having the brain capacity to retrieve stored information, and being able to appropriately apply the behavior. These processes are achieved through actions such as mimicry and emulation. Mimicry is as it sounds, it’s the process of copying behavior without any awareness of the intention. You can think of a child pretending to shave their face when they see their parents doing so. The child pretends to shave their face even though they have no hair on their face, they are just copying the same behavior. While emulation is more cognitively sophisticated, this is when a child understands the goal of the behavior and tries to accomplish the task using the observed behavior as a template. This is an important point because children stop aimlessly mirroring what they have seen but they use what they have seen to further their knowledge. They engage in similar actions to achieve the same goal but they tweak the actions to see if it can be accomplished in a different manner.

Bandura showed these findings in his famous Bobo doll study. In this study Bandura had adults act aggressively towards a bobo doll such as punching and kicking it, while this was occurring children were watching. After a set amount of time Bandura let children into the room without an adult to observe their behavior. Amazingly the children didn’t uniformly mimic the adult’s aggression rather they emulated the behavior (Kleinknecht, 2020). Said another way they observed the event and deduced the intention of the adult, which was to hurt the doll or some sort of variation along that line. The children then acted in different ways to bring about the most efficient amount of pain to that doll. For example, some children used a prop gun to inflict damage on their target. This shows that children understood that the intention of the adult was to hurt the doll and used their own knowledge to achieve the same means.

While this is true there are neurological factors that need to be addressed prior to children effectively using observational learning. Their executive function skills must be mature enough to be able to process and manipulate their perceived stimuli. This makes sense because executive function is involved in self-regulation which is vital in adopting new behaviors as one’s own. In order to act in a new way someone must inhibit previous action scripts that they have taken previously. Furthermore, children need their prefrontal cortex developed enough for them to understand symbols. This is important because symbols are the ways in which people encode information about their environment.

Symbols are used differently in various cultures and the artifacts show in how people act and speak. Moreover this is inline with Bandura’s social cognitive theory, language provides a template for those in their community to encode the same kinds of information. There is an added layer of semantical meaning that cannot be deduced by simpling knowing the syntactical rules of symbols. But once the development of the brain has progressed far enough children can start to learn from other members of their society. If nature controls a major portion of social cognition how can science provide any answers?

While it is true that nature controls a majority of development Science has pointed to ways in which parents can promote the process of brain development. Vygotsky believed that children learn best in their environment when they attempt tasks in a space that is neither too hard nor too easy for them. This theoretical area is called the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is “defined as the difference between a child’s actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and his or her level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, 78). It is currently understood that the instructions that are given to those in the community who are less experienced by those in the community who have more experience will facilitate learning. This is thought to be true because the more experienced members of the society can tailor the difficult information to the individuals needs (scaffolding). The scaffolded approach is aimed to facilitate cognitive growth in increments, reasoning that the gradual increase of difficulty is mirrored with the gradual maturation of the brain. Working within the zone of proximal development will yield the best results the fastest. The premise here is that adults will help children internalize the interactions that take place in their environment because they have more experience successfully solving the problem. But how can parents teach children proper social etiquette in the zone of proximal development?

Parents play an important role in the development of social cognition within their children. Parents give children the template to learn and interact with their world. “In effect, parents teach children how to remember” (Bjorklund & Causey, 2018, 323). To be able to act accordingly with customs one must need to know the values of that culture. They gain this information through interactions with their parents. Essentially parents tell their kids what’s important to attend to when they ask about their memory of an event. The most effective process of reminiscing is called Elaboration.

Elaboration is when parents ask a question and if the infant is unable to answer the parent will elaborate and give an answer in a turn-based sequence. This method is useful and it shows kids both the semantic and syntactic use of language within their culture. The method based speaking approach emphasizes the syntactical formation of a conversation, that two people take turns and listen to the statement of individuals fully, while asking kids about specific aspects of their experience. Which gives children a template to know what they should remember. Kids want to be able to answer questions so they use the parents’ elaboration as a reference guide to use for their next experience. Without this reference, children would attend to commonalities between their experiences rather than the novelty. We should expect this, while children are aging children are taking mental notes about what they’ve experienced frequently in order to predict when they might face it again (bayesian inferencing). However, to be a successful member in their culture they will need to attend to the same things that other people do in order to have meaningful interactions.

Utilizing Elaboration under the Zone of proximity allows for windows to optimize brain development within a child. Combining both nature and nurture in order to yield the best results. Progressing brain development allows children to adopt the theory of mind. Or understanding that your thoughts are not the thoughts of those around you. This, in turn, allows children to develop a sense of self by operating under the template given to them by their parents and building a declarative memory of who they are. Declarative memory consists of two subtype memories which are episodic and semantic. Episodic is described as living memories such as those you have when you travel back somewhere in your mind. While Semantic memory is the knowledge base you create from deducing commonalities from your experiences. Both aspects of Declarative memory paint the picture of who we think we are and declarative memory is governed by what you encode in your environment. This brings us back to how we build such memories and as previously stated it stems from the template our parents give us, who have been indoctrinated in the surrounding culture.

Although at times it may not seem like it, how you interact with your baby sets a template for them that they use to interpret their environment for the rest of their life. This process within a social context is encapsulated in Dodge’s model of social exchange. That is, children perceive a social stimulus such as an adult using the restroom effectively. Then the child must then process what they just saw by encoding the stimuli and comparing it to what they already know. They can only encode the stimuli that they saw, which is outlined to them by their parents. After they compare what they saw they enact their own behaviors to accomplish the same task which can be constrained if proper brain areas aren’t sufficiently developed. Their behaviors are then evaluated by their peers and adjusted accordingly to feedback received. This model helps show the roles that both nature and nurture play in the development of one’s social cognition. The most effective way of teaching kids how to act is by maximizing both the nature and the nurture aspects of Social cognition. You can maximize nature by introducing problems for your child to solve. While maximizing nurture by showing them how to approach the task at hand without making it too easy or too hard for them to solve.


Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 3.

Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 7.

Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 8.

Bjorklund, D., F. & Causey, K., B. (2018). Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. SAGE Publications, Inc, 6, Ch 10.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020). Cog Dev Week 14 Sp 2020 [Unpublished Manuscript]. Department of Psychology, Pacific University, Oregon, United States.