Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Constructivism and Sustainable Development

  • Qudsia KalsoomEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_7-1


Constructivism and sustainable development may be defined as a dynamic relationship between knowledge construction, learning, and sustainability. The relationship is complex because of the complexity of the concepts of constructivism and sustainability. In this relationship, constructivism is both an antecedent condition for sustainable development and a process of sustainable development. The problems of sustainability are not fixed but rather fluid and uncertain. To address the ever-changing and emerging problems of sustainability, constructivist solutions are needed because they capture the complexity of the phenomenon. Constructivist solutions involve sub-processes of constructivist thinking, constructivist practices, and constructivist knowledge creation.


Constructivism and sustainable development are closely linked. Constructivism is a theory of learning as well as a philosophical position, while sustainable development is an ideal to be achieved. Constructivism is rooted in the belief that “knowledge” is constructed by the people. It is not “fixed” and “out there.” Knowledge about the problems associated with sustainability should also be constructed. The problems of today’s world are different from the problems of previous centuries. Environmental degradation and climate change are the phenomenon of past 100 years. Similarly, the gap between rich and poor countries has never been so vast until the twentieth century. Dealing with monstrous industrial waste is another example of today’s problems.

Sustainable development is the development which is concerned about sustainability problems and intends to address them to achieve a state of balance between three components of sustainability, i.e., economy, society, and the environment. As sustainability problems are “real-world problems” (Brundiers et al. 2010) involving a number of players, therefore, their solutions should also involve a number of people in some way or other. Involvement of “everyone” in the journey of sustainability is possible if people are open to learn about the real-world problems and are committed to play a role in addressing them. Researchers have to find integrative solutions to the problems, while solution implementers have to constantly reflect on the outcomes and modify solutions wherever necessary. Ever changing nature and complexity of sustainability problems make it desirable to employ constructivist approach in learning about sustainability issues and conducting research.

Constructivism and Sustainable Development/Sustainability

Sustainable development has a connection with constructivism. The following sections explain constructivism, SD, and relationship between the two constructs, i.e., constructivism and SD.


Constructivism is a theory about knowledge and learning. It explains “knowing” and how one comes to know (Fosnot 2013). The term appears quite often in literature related to educational psychology and research methods in social sciences. Some authors use the term “constructivism” interchangeably with “constructionism,” while others consider constructivism as a learning theory while “constructionism” as a research paradigm. However, many theorists have used the term constructivism as a research paradigm (Lincoln and Guba 2013).

Constructivism as a Theory of Learning

“Constructivism” in educational psychology refers to a set of learning theories. Constructivist theories of learning view learning as a process of making/constructing meaning and developing deep insights through experience and social interaction (Fosnot 1996). Constructivists believe that learning is a process of development involving creation of conceptualizations and validating them. This view is in contrast with the concept of learning as memorizing information existing in books. It is different from behaviorist theory of learning too. Behaviorist theory of learning views learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior, while constructivism views learning as a continuous process of meaning construction. In behaviorism, learning is a product, while in constructivism, learning is a process of development. There are different models of constructivism like trivial constructivism, social constructivism, and radical constructivism. Trivial constructivism views knowledge as internalization and reconstruction of external reality. Conversely, radical constructivism views knowledge as reconstruction of existing knowledge structures in the light of new experiences. According to this view, knowledge is not an accurate representation of external reality (Doolittle 2014). Radical constructivism can be explained in the light of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (Piaget 1977). According to him, cognitive development involves mental processes of assimilation, accommodation, contradiction, and equilibrium. Assimilation allows learners to assimilate new information or concepts in prior existing schemas. Accommodation involves building on the existing conceptions, thus altering them. For example, a learner might have understanding of environmental pollution. New information such that irresponsible consumers’ behavior is responsible for environmental pollution will be first assimilated by the learners in their existing schema/conceptualization of “environmental pollution.” If the learners further process that information in their minds, then they will be able to learn about the concept of responsible consumer behavior. While learning new concepts, there is constant shifting between the processes of assimilation and accommodation. This is called equilibrium. A truly constructivist learning environment allows the learners to experience cognitive processes leading to learning of new concepts. Piaget believed that activities of explorations and discovery were important in cognitive development or learning.

Social constructivism views “knowledge” as something socially constructed. Social constructivists believe that learning is the process of building internal representations of external structures. These internal representations are influenced by one’s beliefs, prior experiences, culture, interaction with others, and scaffolding (Doolittle 2014). Like radical constructivism, social constructivism also rejects the idea of external reality.

Researchers have tried to identify principles of constructivism to explain the concept further (Hein 1991; Doolittle and Hicks 2003). Some of the key principles are as follows:
  • Learning is an active, mental process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. Though hands-on experiences are important in learning, they do not lead to learning without mental engagement.

  • The construction of knowledge or making meaning are individually and socially active processes.

  • Language is an important factor in meaning construction. The language we use influences our learning.

  • Learning is essentially contextual. We cannot learn isolated facts and theories devoid of any context. We learn new things in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices, and our fears.

  • Learning is not instantaneous. For real learning, we need to revisit ideas, ponder on them, try them out, play with them, and use them.

  • The construction of knowledge is fostered by authentic and real-world environments.

The above principles of constructivism suggest that the process of meaning making is complex and involves a number of influences like time, context, language, etc. These principles provide a guideline to educators to plan for constructivist learning activities.

Constructivism as a Philosophical Position

Constructivism as a “worldview” refers to ontological, epistemological, methodological, and axiological assumptions. Constructivism views reality as nonphysical matter of convention and definition. In other words, reality exists only in the minds of the people contemplating them. These people are social scientists. “Reality” in constructivism is determined or influenced by the relationship between the knower and the knowable (to be known). So knowledge created by the “knower” is subjective and mediated by the knower’s prior experiences, gender, social status, race, and context. Knowledge created or constructed by the knower exists in the time/space framework. As knowledge is created by the knowers, therefore it is important to study the constructions of different knowers to infer conclusions. Moreover, the values of the knowers and the research participants should be uncovered or made transparent (Lincoln and Guba 2013).

Sustainable Development/Sustainability

Sustainable development or sustainability is a complex, integrative concept comprising of environmental, economic, and sociocultural aspects. The changing world is characterized by increasing complexity, globalization, and reflexive modernization. Today, quality of technological product cannot be judged on classical criteria of inner engineering because each engineering product has implications for society, economy, and environment. Similarly, decisions made at the global, corporate, or national levels have implications for the society, economy, and the environment. Considering the interconnectedness of issues, sustainable development focuses on the “wholeness.” The purpose of sustainability is to keep the whole system functional without compromising the needs of the future generations.

Sustainability is an ethical ideal for the development of the society without compromising/destroying nature’s resources. In a wider sense, sustainability is associated with the equity in the possibilities for development between the present and the future generations (Ciegis et al. 2009). Sustainability is concerned for using the earth’s resources cautiously and equitably to allow present and future generations to continue to exist on Earth with an adequate quality of life. In this vein, “sustainability is a valuated quality of processes, structures and systems” (Becker et al. 1999) that helps people today and tomorrow to get a “proper and fair share of the planet’s resources” (Ciegis et al. 2009). Economy, society, and environment are three key underlying dimensions of sustainability. These components interact and influence each other in a whole. Therefore, sustainability refers to sustaining the whole system by maintaining a balance among its components.

Sustainability is not a physical entity or condition which may be achieved after an intervention. It is a thinking paradigm based upon the values associated with human dignity and human rights (McKeown and Nolet 2013). Sustainability as an outcome of sustainability initiatives is a state of balance among the individual components of the whole system. This involves environmental sustainability or conservation along with socioeconomic sustainability. Environmental sustainability achieved with present trends, where a small minority lives in luxury, would be socially unsustainable as it will continue perpetuating institutionalized injustice (Bossel 1999). Similarly, exploiting environmental resources at higher rate to meet the needs of all people in all countries will not be environmentally sustainable.

Relationship Between Constructivism and Sustainability Learning

Constructivism, both as a theory of learning and as a worldview, is related to sustainable development. As a theory of learning, constructivism has implications for making people acquire sustainability competencies – a precondition for sustainable development. The competencies include systems thinking; normative competence; strategic competence; anticipatory competence; and interpersonal competence (Wiek et al. 2011). Sustainability competencies involve cognitive as well as affective dimensions of learning. These competencies cannot be developed by memorizing information transmitted by the teacher. To develop sustainability competencies, learners should be provided opportunities to fully interact with the content related to economy, society, environment, and their interaction with each other. Scholars from the field of sustainability education have suggested the use of constructivist pedagogies to help the learners become aware of the dimensions of sustainable development. Some of the suggested constructivist pedagogies in sustainability education are project-based learning; service learning; community problem-solving; transdisciplinary problem-oriented learning; critical dialogue; inquiry-based learning; interdisciplinary undergraduate research; experiential learning; and internships (Brundiers et al. 2010; Cheong 2005; Kalsoom and Khanam 2017; Lasen et al. 2015; Wiek et al. 2014). It is also important to remember (as mentioned earlier) that learning does not occur instantaneously. It needs time. All constructivist pedagogies give time to the participants to assimilate new ideas and information in their existing concepts and then develop them as new concepts (accommodation).

Besides cognitive learning, sustainable development requires affective learning, i.e., developing attitudes for carrying out favorable sustainability practices at the individual and collective levels. Affective learning is transformation in attitudes, hence, difficult to achieve. We can learn new information quickly, but developing an attitude needs time. For example, one can become aware of socioeconomic inequalities by looking at some statistics. However, developing an attitude to campaign against inequalities requires time. A favorable context may help in developing an attitude early. Constructivist pedagogies focusing on sustainability issues provide a context to the learners to transform their attitudes. For example, repeated critical dialogue on socioeconomic inequalities can help the participants to take a proactive role to address inequalities at individual or community level. Similarly, service learning provides a context to the participants to know about the problems faced by the people. A longer interaction with the people in the service learning program has a potential to bring transformations in learners’ attitudes. Constructivist pedagogies are appropriate pedagogies for developing sustainability competencies because they provide opportunities for cognitive and affective learning.

Constructivism and Sustainability Research

Constructivism has implications for sustainability research too. Sustainability research is different from typical scientific research which aims at advancing the field by producing knowledge. The researchers from natural sciences apply positivist or post-positivist methodological approaches to produce context-free knowledge in laboratory settings. Scientific research methodology is rooted in ontological and epistemological assumptions that reality is absolute and independent of the knower and the context. These beliefs lead to laboratory-based research where the researcher can control variables and test hypotheses and theories. Contrarily, research in the field of sustainable development is not only concerned about the advancement of the field of sustainability; its main concern is to produce research that can solve sustainability problems. Dual focus of research (i.e., advancement of the field and solving the problems of sustainability) has resulted into a new field of research, i.e., sustainability science. The field of sustainability science is combination of research and education that “results in new knowledge, technology, innovation and holistic understanding” (UNESCO 2018). The aim of sustainability science cannot be achieved through natural science research methods because these methods are not applied in real-world settings.

The problems of climate change, water scarcity, war, rapid urbanization, overpopulation, and gap between rich and poor are real-world problems. It is also true that most of these problems have occurred due to scientific advancements in different fields. These problems are underpinned by complexity, uncertainty, context, and incompleteness of information. These problems can neither be investigated nor solved in laboratory. They demand real-world, contextual solutions.

There is a fair consensus among the academia that sustainability problems need new ways of knowledge production and decision-making (Lang et al. 2012; Scholz et al. 2006). Sustainability research should reflect the complexity, diversity, and variability of the problems. Moreover, the research process should involve diverse actors, especially those whose needs and interests are at stake. This will help integrate the best available knowledge. It might also help in creating ownership among the people to address the problems. The research approach focusing on complexity, diversity, and contextuality of the research problems has been labeled as transdisciplinary research. Transdisciplinary research aims at the solution or transition of societal problems by integrating knowledge from various fields. The underlying assumption of transdisciplinary research is that our world is an integrated whole. Real world is not compartmentalized in different subjects or disciplines. All its problems are integrated and transdisciplinary. They cannot be solved through mono-disciplinary knowledge. Transdisciplinary research process (TRP) is characterized by collaboration, production of solution-oriented knowledge, and application of the produced knowledge in scientific and societal practice. It is also important to consider that TRP is not a linear process but rather involves iterative or recursive cycles guided by regular reflection (Lang et al. 2012). It can be claimed that TRP involves simultaneous processes of learning and knowledge creation. Constructivism serves as a guiding learning theory and a worldview in TRP. The first step in TRP is building a collaborative research team. Scientists from different fields and key “actors” from the real world collectively plan a research project. They learn about and from each other’s knowledge and decide about what, where, how, why, when, and whom of the research project. All collaborative steps in TRP involve learning from each other. Lang et al. (2012) have identified the following steps in TRP.
  • Building a common language. Team members are expected to build a “common language” to build the capacity of team members and prevent any misunderstandings at later stages of the research process.

  • Defining the key terms. Team members operationalize or define all key terms collectively.

  • Creating shared understanding of the sustainability problem under research. Team members (scientists, practitioners, and actors) are expected to hold detailed dialogues on the research problem to make sure that all team members fully understand the sustainability problem which is to be investigated.

  • Deciding on the research boundary, research objectives, research questions, and success criteria. Once team members have developed a shared understanding of the broader research problem, they need to collaboratively decide on the research boundary, objectives questions, and success criteria. As team members are from different fields, therefore, it is extremely important that they all share same understanding of the research project.

  • Design a methodological framework. Team members decide on methodological framework for collaborative knowledge production and integration. This includes agreeing on the set of methods to be employed in transdisciplinary settings. The methods chosen are integrative rooted in the philosophies of constructivism, critical theory, and post-positivism.

  • Assign roles. Team members are assigned or they choose specific roles which they would play in the project.

  • Apply and adjust integrative research methods and transdisciplinary settings. The team applies the tools developed under methodological framework to generate integrative knowledge. The team may decide to further develop or modify methods.

  • Evaluate societal and scientific impact. The purpose of sustainability research is two way: knowledge generation and problem solution. Therefore, the outcomes of the research need to be reviewed in terms of scientific credibility and applicability to solve problems.

Continuous formative evaluation is an essential element of the transdisciplinary sustainability research project. It is done by an extended peer group (comprising experts from science and practice). Another important component of the TRP is to enhance the capabilities and interests of the actors involved. As all actors cannot have same capacities and interests, therefore it is important to create a learning environment which allows the team members to develop new conceptualizations and become more interested in the sustainability research. Taking interest in sustainability research is an attitude, while capacity of doing something is mostly cognitive. TRP allows knowledge building on one hand and cognitive and affective learning at the same time.

Future Directions

Constructivism and sustainable development have implications for school education, higher education, research, and the realization of the UN Agenda 2030. The goals of the Agenda 2030 are primarily plan of action for the people and the planet to bring peace and prosperity through participation of all nations and the people. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon labeled the Agenda 2030 as a transformative vision for a better world. All 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and associated 169 targets of the Agenda 2030 are integrated. These integrated goals and targets require integrated and transdisciplinary solutions. Constructivism, as a theory of learning and paradigm of research, may serve as a tool for individuals, small groups, large groups, and universities to achieve the targets and goals of Agenda 2030.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationBeaconhouse National UniversityLahorePakistan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Luciana Brandli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Passo FundoPasso FundoBrazil