How Constructivism Relates to Understandings of Phobias

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Constructivism is a type of learning theory that explains human learning as an active attempt to construct meaning in the world around us. Constructivists believe that learning is more active and self-directed than either behaviorism or cognitive theory would postulate.

Constructivism divides learning into two types: accommodation and assimilation. The focus is on the individual’s desire and ability to learn, and the teacher or therapist is merely there to help guide self-directed learning.

The idea of constructivism has been applied to many academic disciplines. Most related to the understanding of phobia are the concepts of cognitive and social constructivism.

Cognitive Constructivism

Psychologist Jean Piaget gets credit for creating cognitive constructivist theory. It consists of two major parts called: ages and stages. The ages component predicts children's ability to understand or not understand certain things. The stages component posits that humans cannot immediately understand and use information, instead, they must build their knowledge through experience.

This theory directly contradicts the educational model most U.S. public schools use to transfer knowledge. Where teachers expect students to memorize given information after briefly practicing it, rather than discovering their own interest in something and then experiencing it. In a Piagetian classroom setting the teacher is seen more as a facilitator of the student's learning experience.

Social Constructivism

Social constructivism is a variety of cognitive constructivism put forth by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He believed in the cognitive model but asserted that it's not just the process of learning that's important, it's "the process by which learners were integrated into a knowledge community." 

He saw that learning requires a social interaction between people. Thus, social constructivism was born. Both cognitive and social constructivism see knowledge as actively constructed.

The Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders

Experiencing bouts of anxiety including phobias is just part of being human. However, reported anxiety levels have risen at an alarming rate since the end of WWII. Now, in the 21st century, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems worldwide.

Phobias are an anxiety disorder and some clinicians believe the social construct of our modern society, with its fast pace and high demands, contributed, and continues to contribute, to this uptick in anxiety disorders. 

Even more evidence suggests, according to an article published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, the rise is due to the prevailing belief in our society "that anxiety-related symptoms are a socially and medically legitimate response to life in the modern age," 

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  • Berkeley Graduate Division: Social Constructivism. .
  • Dowbiggin. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry: High Anxieties - the Social Construction of Anxiety Disorders (2009).
  • Hays and Singh. Qualitative Inquiry in Clinical and Educational Settings. (2012).
  • University of Houston: Overview of Cognitive Constructionism.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.