Phenomenology and constructionism are two outlooks for understanding and describing human experience in ways that can help humans (especially educators, designers, and makers) shape a better/more purposeful future. They are well aligned with engineering and architecture because both paradigms both have to do with human creation. Without human creation, architecture and engineering are not possible. In this blog, I’m attempting to summarize my understanding of the two in a way that might be of use to other researchers.
Phenomenology is a philosophy as well as a method of doing research. It focuses on experiences people have, and on how individuals understand and describe their experiences. Education researchers have been working hard to refine this method of research, although it is still in its infancy as a research methodology. On the other hand, phenomenology has been central to architectural thought since at least the mid 1900s.
Today, I am striving to understand distinctions and techniques involved with three specific variants of phenomenology: transcendental phenomenology, hermeneutic/interpretive phenomenology, and phenomenography. These differ in how they view objectivity and subjectivity, and this aspect intrigues me.
Construction is a fundamental aspect of architecture, architectural design, and architectural education. Two distinct paradigms deal explicitly with “construction,” although I see quite a bit of overlap between the two, so I’m placing them under a common heading.
These two construction-related outlooks are called constructivism and social constructionism.
The book Qualitative Research: The Essential Guide to Theory and Practice, written by Maggi Savin-Baden and Claire Howell Major (2013), is helping me better understand the distinctions between these two ways of thinking about and conceptualizing being, knowing, and researching.
I’ll attempt to explain what I’ve found using their book and integrating it into what I learned in school:
Constructivism is the more subjective of the two construction-oriented paradigms. This paradigm asserts that knowledge exists in the human mind and that researchers can understand it by “unpacking individual experiences” (Savin-Baden & Major, p. 56). “Reality,” in this view, is what individuals think it is. To understand the world, we (as educators, architects, and/or researchers) need to assess how individuals know, understand, and indeed construct the world in their minds.
Constructionism is a more collective. This paradigm is often referred to as “social constructionism” and it posits, “Reality and knowledge are socially constructed” (p. 56). In this view, groups of people decide collectively – and quite often unconsciously – what things (phenomena, people, places, ideas, etc.) they will recognize and how they will understand and name them. In inverse fashion, groups also decide what things they will not see/understand/name. Researchers who adopt this way of seeing the world study how groups of people collectively see/interpret/create/construct the world around them. Today, constructionism appears in only in a few publications on engineering education (specifically, on teaching robotics or materials engineering).
I’ve been planning to use phenomenology in my upcoming work, yet I believe constructionism also hold great value for engineering education research. Perhaps I’ll help introduce this way of seeing to the EER community.