Home » University of Kansas » Behaviorism V. Constructivism: Bridging an “Ism” Schism What Should Special Education Researchers Be?

Behaviorism V. Constructivism: Bridging an “Ism” Schism What Should Special Education Researchers Be?

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By Tyler Hicks, Ph.D.

A colleague of mine was once in a conversation with two veteran special education professors. One was a radical behaviorist and the other, a just as radical, but a constructivist. He wanted to impress them both as he was a very young scholar at the time. So, one can imagine his dismay when one of the professors turned to him and asked point-blank, “Are you a behaviorist or a constructivist?”

Unsure how to respond, he replied limply, “Well, I’m actually both.” Needless to say, his answer failed to impress.  With a “pat on the back,” they assured him that his position was impossible.

What should he have said to his older colleagues instead? I think he should have told them, “I’m neither.” Why?  Behaviorism and constructivism have been locked in intellectual combat for the soul of special education research for a while now. Yet, the one thing that matters to behaviorists and constructivists alike is that there is a difference between behaviorism and constructivism. So, trying to be “both” at once is likely to make opponents on each side of the aisle question your sincerity or understanding of the issues. You might as well claim to be voting for both presidential candidates in the upcoming election at once.

Behaviorism, like constructivism, is an “ism” – not a method. The “ism” is what prevents someone from being both at the same time. Admiring behavior analysis (i.e., a method) does not make one a behaviorist. Constructivists can agree that behavior analysis enjoys a measure of success in practice. Although improbable, a constructivist could even be a behavior analyst while maintaining their constructivist position. This is because “behavior analyst” and “behaviorist” are highly correlated but not interchangeable terms. A “behaviorist,” unlike a mere “behavior analyst,” really denotes someone who claims that good research must conform to the ideals of behavior science (i.e., operational definitions, observation over inference, and stress on operant conditioning). In short, behaviorists are “fundamentalist positivists.”

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Constructivism, likewise, is a philosophical stance, not a method. Everyone recognizes that constructs, such as the monetary value of your car, are artificial inventions. They do not exist outside of human cognition. They depend upon us and belong to the social world of our own making. Some of these constructed ideas, as critical theorists recognize, can be very harmful (e.g., racist ideas, ablest ideas).

Even behaviorists recognize some ideas are constructed. However, constructivism goes much further than the trivial observation some ideas are constructed. Constructivism is the position that all ideas – not just a subset – are products of the human mind. Humans have no access to a reality independent of the human mind. In short, constructivists are relativists.

It seems, then, that neither constructivism nor behaviorism offer the full story. They both take us to untenable positions (i.e., relativism or positivism).

So, if behaviorism and constructivism are both unsatisfactory options, then what should special education researchers be? What position allows us to keep what is good about behaviorism and constructivism yet avoid the dead ends? That is a hard question to answer, one that I’ll save for a future post.

Yet what I will say now is that, in contrast to my colleague’s attempt at diplomacy, trying to be “both” is not the answer. Instead, why not reject the very grammar of the question, “Are you a behaviorist of a constructivist?” That question poses a false dilemma, for there are certainly other options for special education scholars (e.g., realism, pragmatism, and so on).

Perhaps those who are intrigued by the question ought to treat it as an invitation to read up on epistemology. A tough, but rewarding, subject.


Tyler Hicks, Ph.D. (Special Education & Measurement/Evaluation), is a Post-Doctorate Researcher in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and the SWIFT (School-Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation) Center. His academic interests include Bayesian epistemology, philosophies of disability, and inclusionary education policies. At its best, his work is concerned with the intersection of methods, methodology, and philosophy of inquiry. His dissertation scholarship focused on using Bayesian estimators with subjective priors when statistical modeling in special education research with small samples. 

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