Untangling Constructivism and Why It Matters

Constructivism is the educational philosophy that says humans do not simply absorb knowledge from the external world. We are not passive receivers of information.

Rather, we actively construct our understanding of the world through interactions with our environment and the integration of new experiences with existing cognitive structures (e.g., ways of categorizing things, understanding how one thing relates to another, culture, past experiences, systems of beliefs and values, etc.).

That's a mouthful, so why should you care?

When we talk about a theory of constructive development, or constructive-developmental stages, this is what the "constructive" part is referring to, and handling the complexity of modern life and work requires a lot of constructive development.

What does that really mean?

If you are anything like me, your garage or basement might contain some collection, large or small, of hardware: nuts, bolts, screws, nails, pipe fittings, o-rings, picture hanging supplies, electrical connectors, wire, etc.

In my case, these are “organized” in plastic bins of various sizes that hang on a rack. My supply of drywall screws, for example, has been in the same spot, in the same bin, for years. That bin contains only 1-1/4” drywall screws.

Not Everything Is As Simple As Drywall Screws

Unlike the trusty drywall screws, other bins started out with a single item, but then something new came along, something that didn’t quite fit in an existing bin. It was close enough, however, that I could justify tossing it in with that original thing.

I know it doesn't exactly belong there, but setting up a new bin takes time, energy, and space. I don’t know how often I’m going to encounter that new thing in the future. It might never warrant a dedicated bin. Maybe I don’t have any more bins, so I just throw it in with its closest cousin, a categorization compromise.

Problem solved.

My Sense-Making System

There in the red plastic bins hanging on the wall, I have constructed a physical analog of the hardware organization system that I constructed in my mind.

It works for me. It’s not perfect; every now and then I have to deal with some unknown doo-dad that doesn’t really fit, but, overall, I pretty much know where things belong.

I can make sense of my hardware reality through this system for now, perhaps forever. It depends how frequently I take on new projects, and how different they are from what I have done before.

Life is good! A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Well, sort of. Most things are in their places, with a few that I crammed in the closest-match bin that still had room. And sometimes the match isn't really that close.

That Other Bin...

Oh… maybe I failed to mention that one other bin, the one I don’t like to talk about.

Stuffed in a drawer, out of sight, I have the inevitable “miscellaneous” bin. Maybe you have one, too. Maybe more than one.

Confession: I also have a miscellaneous cables bin. If you need a 15-pin VGA monitor cable, I can probably help you out (if you are old enough to know what that is).

The miscellaneous bin is typically the largest, often overflowing, and full of bits and pieces that just didn’t fit anywhere else—like, not even close. I don’t know what to do with them.

I can’t make them go away. I’m pretty sure some of them are important and useful, but by stashing them in a drawer, I can almost deny their existence.

That’s what we like to do with information that doesn’t fit in our sense-making structure.

We avoid it.


Unfortunately, my miscellaneous bin is getting out of hand. It’s spilling out into the drawer, and its mostly metal contents are so heavy they are now making the drawer sag. Like it or not, I’m going to have to deal with it.

“Dealing with it” involves dumping it all out in the light where I can see it. It means doing the hard work of figuring out what all these miscellaneous things are and where they really belong. It means potentially restructuring my entire organizational system.

I will have to create a new way of containing and making sense of all this stuff. I will have to restructure my knowledge.

Sometimes this means adding a few new bins or bolting an extension onto the rack. The old can be acceptably upgraded to integrate the new.

Other times, it means starting over from scratch when you suddenly see a new and better way to make sense of it all, or admit that the old way can no longer contain it.

Constructive Development

This is the constructive-developmental process. It is not merely about categorizing things, however. It is about making sense of our entire life experience, from the inputs of our senses, to our thoughts, emotions, culture, relationships, ideas, values, beliefs, community, etc. 

We have to hang all those cognitive-emotional contents on some sort of sense-making framework, like my rack of red plastic bins. When that system stops working for us, it is not what we know that has to change, it is the framework itself. We must change how we know it.

Robert Kegan and others have proposed that this constructive-development occurs in discrete stages. Kegan further argues that he did not impose these stages on people. Instead, they emerged from the data.

Our red organizer bin metaphor shows us how this might occur.

In reality, we are accumulating stuff that doesn't quite fit in our sense-making structure all the time, a continuous build-up. But we hide it away in the miscellaneous bin, stuffed in a drawer out of sight. That works for a period of time, and from the outside, it looks like nothing is happening, but everyone's miscellaneous bins have a finite capacity.

When the pieces of life that don't fit our existing cognitive framework are spilling over to the extent that we are tripping over them, reality is imposing its will, letting us know that making sense of things will require us to dismantle the old structure and build a new one.

When To Restructure

The interval between major constructive overhauls depends on how tolerant a person is of the stuff spilling out on the floor, and how willing or unwilling they are to abandon their existing sense-making structures to create new ones.

Is it time to rethink things? Ask yourself the following:

  1. How do you feel about information that doesn’t fit in your existing system of bins? Do the un-integrated contents of the miscellaneous bin really bother you?
  2. What is your miscellaneous bin's current state? Does it contain a few really unusual outliers, things you rarely encounter, or is it overflowing with the stuff of daily experience? Do you find yourself confronted with lots of conflicting inputs, when you once felt life was more or less under control?
  3. Do you have a sense that there could be a better, easier way for organizing all this stuff? A way where all the pieces fit better? A new way of understanding the world that dissolves some of the apparent contradictions and impasses?

All of this discomfort is a signal that there is a better way to make sense of your growing world, but that you will have to let go of your old understanding to develop into it.

How frequently this happens is unique to every individual, but it is important not to get too attached to one, fixed way of being. Getting stuck is problematic for many reasons.

You can stop buying new varieties of screws, but it's hard to stop the world from changing. Unwanted hardware can be safely discarded, but it's hard to deny reality indefinitely.

We Can Be Your Guide

Our job is to help you find the limits of your sense-making. It is to challenge you to stop stashing inconvenient information in the miscellaneous bin, and take on the developmental work of constructing a new way of understanding that can accommodate all of it, old and new.

Our job is to help you untangle the threads when things get all knotted up, to un-weave a bit so you can weave something better. That's what Retexo means, after all!

Schedule a free, 30-minute introductory conversation to learn how we can help.

Until next time,



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