The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Constructivism

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)

 Introduction. There are a multitude of paradigms. Some of them are modifications of classical paradigms that have been slightly changed by academics. Then there are those paradigms that are not research paradigms. They may be educational, philosophical, or theoretical, but not of such a nature that they can logically serve as the foundation for academic research.

I will discuss 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research, starting with behaviourism. Your comments, criticism, additions or endorsements of the articles will be appreciated. This is the second paradigm that I am discussing.

 Constructivism. Constructivism claims that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. We reconcile new observations and experiences with our previous ideas and experiences. This might change our perceptions or the new information and experiences might be discarded, depending on how we process it in our minds. This means that we actually create our own knowledge by asking questions and exploring things, which would inevitably be subjective.[1] Elkind[2] defined constructivism as follows:

“Constructivism is the recognition that reality is a product of human intelligence interacting with experience in the real world.”

Ethics is an important value in constructivism. Constructivists recognise the importance of the construction and the way in which data is collected as prerequisites for validity and accuracy of analysis. The quality of data and the way in which it is analysed determine the nature of reality and how it is interpreted.

Constructivism is mostly used with grounded theory methodology.[3] Human interests are important for research purposes, with the result that the paradigm can also be used with a number of other research methods, for example action research, case study research, ethnography, etc. A multitude of data collecting methods can be used, for example interviews, participant observation, artefacts, and almost any documents that are relevant to the field of study.[4]

The aim of such research is to understand particular situations or phenomena. Rich data is gathered from which ideas can be formed. It involves a researcher collaborating with participants. The interaction of a number of people is researched in their context or setting, mostly to solve social problems of the target group. The accuracy of research findings is validated and creates an agenda for change or reform. This is a rather well-known sequence of events that is followed in most qualitative research methodology.

Constructivism is also closely associated with pragmatism, relativism, liberalism, interpretivism, symbolic interactionism and positivism. For example, like positivism, constructivism also uses observation to gather information. Different from positivism, which argues that knowledge is generated in a scientific method, i.e. externally, you, as the researcher, are part of what is being observed, i.e. internally. This is called an ‘emic’ approach, which means observing the community, also called the target group, from the inside. An ‘etic’ approach would mean to observe the target group from the outside, as in the case of positivism.

Although some academics claim that constructivism can be positively associated with behaviourism, this is a rather weak and unconvincing link because of the absence of reflection in the case of behaviourism. This, however, is also questionable because “learned history” without reflection does not make sense. Constructivism also rejects scientism and empiricism for much the same reason, i.e. lack of reflection.

Constructivism is rather widely criticised in terms of its value, or lack of value in education as well as its lack of balance when used as a philosophy in research. In education it can lead to group thinking when the interpretation of one or a few prominent educators or scientists is regarded as “the only truth”.

Constructivists sometimes place too much emphasis on sensory experience at the expense of reflection. This means that constructivists sometimes focus strongly on the ontology, i.e. “what is” and neglect the epistemology, i.e. the “explanation” and “justification” of the phenomenon, with the result that knowledge is not sufficiently proven to be valid or accurate.

Different academics link constructivism to a multitude of different other paradigms, research methods and realities, thereby robbing it of its identity as a valid research paradigm.


[1] Accessed on 22/11/2017.

[2] In Accessed on 22/11/2017.

[3] Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. 2018: 416. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. Fifth edition. Sage Publications, Inc. Los Angeles.

[4]… Accessed on 01/05/2018.

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What would President Nelson Mandela have said?

I was the military attaché in Switzerland when President Nelson Mandela visited the country, in 1997, if my memory serves me right. Ambassador Ruth Mompati arranged for the entire embassy staff to meet him. We were standing in a circle, and when he came to me I came to attention, saluted him and said: “God morning Mr President, may I introduce myself. I am colonel Nel.” He smiled, shook my hand and answered me in Afrikaans.

Even though I was in uniform in my previous life, I always believed that the solution to South Africa’s problems is education, not violence and war. It was evident from a number of speeches by President Mandela that he, too, felt that the route to job creation and prosperity for all South Africans would be through quality education and training.

That is why I established Mentornet. The company was originally established as Manpower Mentoring Academy on 6 March 1991. In 1999 we accredit through SAQA (the old ‘blue book” process, which some of you might remember) to offer three higher education certificates. A year later the Council on Higher Education (CHE) was established. They simply swept the accreditation of all private learning institutions off the table and, to ensure that such providers would not be able to continue offering learning they also convinced the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), then still the Department of Education, to cancel the registration of all private providers.

As if this was not bad enough, the DHET “blacklisted” all the private providers accredited by SAQA as not being registered and included a list of all our names in their web site. I still can’t believe that nobody took legal action against them for doing this. To this day the CHE and their quality assurance body, the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) uses this “having been deregistered by DHET” as an excuse when they do not wish to accredit private providers and cannot find a valid reason for their refusal. Mentornet subsequently did accredit with SETAs and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) and registered with the DHET again.

President Mandela challenged public universities to restructure themselves to cater for the previously disadvantaged, especially the unemployed. Instead universities still focus on issuing political leaders with so-called honorary degrees while the pass rate for those who need learning is absolutely dismal. Surely this is something that the CHE should pay attention to rather than to target small private learning institutions, or, even worse, doing their utmost to protect poor performing public universities against private higher education institutions who perform much better and offer much better quality learning.

Government departments and parastatals approached Mentornet to offer a bachelor’s degree in occupational and vocational learning because they were concerned about the poor quality learning taking place in the workplace and offered by TVET Colleges. Such a degree should focus on the theory and philosophy of occupational and vocational learning rather than practical learning, which legacy and even the new QCTO qualifications focus on. Mentornet developed the qualification, but the CHE do not seem to understand the desperate need for such a qualification if workplace learning is to add value to the industry. Perhaps they do not understand the difference between occupational learning, i.e. workplace learning, which focuses on acquiring skills and the theory and philosophy of occupational learning, which would be academic learning.

It is often claimed that private learning institutions are just opportunists trying to make lots of money while offering poor quality learning. I cannot speak for other private learning institutions because I do not know what their fees or profit margins are. I can, however, say the following about Mentornet:

  • Mentornet’s course fees for a national qualifications is less than a third of what government currently sponsor students with, and universities add an amount to such sponsorships.
  • Mentornet students enjoy a three-course meal every day when the attend contact learning or study schools at no additional cost to them or their employers.
  • Mentornet students do not need to purchase prescribed books and they receive professional developed and published books for most of the modules that they attend. All books for the bachelor’s degree will be published books that student will not pay for in addition to their study fees.
  • Mentornet is registered for skills levies and pay the required amount without claiming anything back, ever. In addition we spend and amount of approximately 18% of our annual salaries on the development of our staff members and we allow two unemployed students on every course for free. Such unemployed students are employed by us if they perform well enough on their courses.

In closing, I don’t think President Mandela would have been happy with the way in which the CHE forsakes its responsibility to promote the quality of learning in higher education or performitivity of most public universities.


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The Nature and Elements of Research Paradigms: Behaviourism

Written by Hannes Nel, B. Mil; BA Hons; MBL; D. Com (HRM); D. Phil (LPC)


Introduction. There are a multitude of paradigms. Some of them are modifications of classical paradigms that have been slightly changed by academics. Then there are those paradigms that are not research paradigms. They may be educational, philosophical, or theoretical, but not of such a nature that they can logically serve as the foundation for academic research.

I will discuss 28 different paradigms that I regard as of importance to academic research, starting with behaviourism. Your comments, criticism, additions or endorsements of the articles will be appreciated. The paradigms that I will discuss are the following:

  1. Behaviourism
  2. Constructivism
  3. Critical race theory
  4. Critical theory
  5. Empiricism
  6. Ethnomethodology
  7. Feminism
  8. Functionalism
  9. Hermeneutics
  10. Interpretivism
  11. Liberalism
  12. Modernism
  13. Neoliberalism
  14. Phenomenology
  15. Positivism
  16. Post-colonialism
  17. Post-modernism
  18. Post-positivism
  19. Post-structuralism
  20. Pragmatism
  21. Pre-modernism
  22. Radicalism
  23. Rationalism
  24. Relativism
  25. Romanticism
  26. Scientism
  27. Structuralism
  28. Symbolic interactionism


Behaviourism. Behaviourism is a set of doctrines that argues that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learned histories and reinforcement.

Behaviourists argue that the human mind cannot be known and, therefore, cannot be shown to have an effect on the individual’s behaviour. All mental states, including beliefs, values, motives and reasons can only be defined in terms of observable behaviour. Any data of a mental kind should be regarded as unscientific. Reinforcement can increase (positive reinforcement) or decrease (negative reinforcement) desired behaviour.

All human behaviour can be understood in terms of cause and effect. Behaviourists, therefore, argue that research should focus on that which is determined by, and is the product of, the environment. This implies that research should focus on observable behaviour which can be objectively measured rather than on things like cognitive processes which can only be inferred.[1] Intentionality and purposiveness are excluded or regarded as less important.

Positivism includes behaviourism, because positivism believes that understanding of human behaviour can be gained through observation and reason.

Behaviourism disagrees with constructivism because constructivism claims that understanding is gained through experience and reflection. There is, however, a link between positivism and constructivism with “reason” requiring “reflection”. This, however, can hardly be seen as establishing a positive link between behaviourism and constructivism because of other elements which we will discuss under constructivism, which happens to be the next paradigm that we will discuss.

The problem with behaviourism as a research paradigm is that changes in behaviour without taking cognitive processes into consideration are often only temporary. Consequently it does not deal with subjective human meaning-making.

[1] Accessed on 23/11/2017.

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Quality Assurance the RSA Way

There is hardly a private provider who does not experience frustration about poor service delivery by quality assurance bodies and I know of many private learning institutions that just gave up and walked away. This is really sad, because in the end it is the students and learners who suffer the most.

I decided to share my experiences and the hard lessons that I learned with other private providers and also those who would like to accredit as private providers. I actually already did a substantial amount of work on writing a book which deals with the theory of quality assurance as well as how it is used or abused by South African quality assurance bodies and learning institutions. The book will probably be rather voluminous, but I will add an index at the back so that you can use it as a source of reference.

However, it would be unwise to write only about my experiences and the lessons that I learned. Therefore I invite you to share with me your frustrations with quality assurance bodies, the lessons that you learned and any other experiences that you had from which others can learn. Just make sure that what you write is ethical, valid and accurate. The test is if you would be able to provide evidence in court if you were asked to testify. This does not mean that you will be asked to testify in court, but it will be a deciding factor if I can use your information or not.  I will also prepare a questionnaire that you can complete, but this will only be to gather data on statistics and so on. Please send me your stories separately by email to . You may send your stories anonymously if you so prefer, but then it is more likely that I will not be able to use your contributions.

I am hoping to have the book published before the end of the year and everybody whose contributions I use in the book will receive a free copy.

Regards, J.P. ( Hannes) Nel, CEO Mentornet (Pty) Ltd

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Obstacles in the way of the National Recognition of Prior Learning System in South Africa

KICK OUT 3I read the SAQA document entitled “Lifelong Learning at the Centre: the National Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) system in South Africa” with interest. It is, indeed, a well-researched report and SAQA should be congratulated with the progress that they have made in establishing RPL as a tool by means of which to address access to learning and redress challenges.

In my opinion the numbers of people who can potentially benefit from RPL quoted in the report are extremely conservative. The real figure is probably much higher. Unfortunately there are a number of obstacles in the way of achieving the potential benefits that RPL hold for redress, lifelong learning and, ultimately, employment. The following are such obstacles.

  • Lack of cooperation between stakeholders. Learning institutions are supposed to support the quality assurance policies of the quality assurance bodies that accredited them. And yet, some quality assurance bodies accuse learning institutions of copyright infringements when they align their RPL policies with the policies of said bodies. They do not understand that their policies are supposed to serve as the foundation for RPL on lower levels.
  • Some quality assurance bodies only recognise RPL for the purpose of gaining access into further learning. They rigidly ignore other opportunities to promote lifelong learning by also utilising RPL for certification, crediting, improved promotion and remuneration, and to redress political and social injustices.
  • The “50% rule” is jealously applied. This rule is a huge obstacle in the way of objective and flexible recognition of prior learning. One wonders if, perhaps, learning institutions, especially universities, are not using it to protect their client base and to polish their image.
  • Quality assurance bodies claim that the same set of credits cannot be transferred to more than one qualification. This is a rigid, short-sighted and senseless stance.

In closing, SAQA’s stance of recognising RPL for access and for credits and towards the granting of whole qualifications testifies to a holistic and open-minded approach that supports the objective of the National Skills Development Strategy. Focusing on what has been learned rather than on the status of the institution, organisation, place or context where the learning was obtained shows that they truly understand the meaning and purpose of RPL. Excellent work.

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Why most curricula are wrong

POST STRUCTURALISMWritten by Dr J.P. Nel, MD of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd

The curriculum should serve as the blueprint for any learning programme, regardless of the level or type of qualification or part-qualification that it represents. It is frustrating to see how often curriculums are written just to please a quality assurance body or to create the impression that the learning institution offers professional education and training.

Any learning process has as elements theory and philosophy on the one side and procedures and processes on the other. Academic learning should focus more on theory and philosophy while occupational and vocational learning, which are actually the same thing, should focus more on procedures and processes. The mistake that especially higher education institutions, notably universities, make is to ignore or neglect procedures and processes.

Occupational curriculums, on the other hand, tend to ignore or neglect the necessity to link knowledge outcomes with practical outcomes and workplace outcomes. Some may refer to outcomes as learning objectives or modules.

Learning should always lead to improved performance in the workplace and the workplace requires competence. Ironically higher level tasks and basic level tasks often require practical competence only. High level tasks are sometimes too difficult for some workers to understand; consequently they are taught only procedures or steps. They perform the tasks in a particular sequence but do not understand why this is necessary. Low level tasks are easy to perform; therefore workers doing basic work are also only taught steps. Both groups, therefore, require practical competence only.

In between high and basic level tasks are the majority of tasks that require comprehension. Workers need to understand why tasks are performed in a particular order and way. Workers, therefore, require foundational competence, and this is where curriculum writers often err.

You should not have knowledge outcomes in a curriculum that are not linked to practical outcomes. Also, it is most unlikely that you will have practical outcomes with no theoretical foundation. That is why each and every knowledge outcome should be linked to a specific practical outcome and in the same order so that they can logically be grouped together when learning materials and practical exercises are developed and learning takes place.

Foundational competence, mostly achieved through a combination of theoretical and practical learning at a learning institution, serves as the foundation for the achievement of reflexive competence. Reflexive competence is achieved when what the individual learned is applied in the workplace. That is why workplace outcomes need to be aligned with theoretical and practical outcomes. Reflexive competence mostly requires practice and lots of time.

It would be unfair assessment practice to test learners against workplace outcomes that were not taught at the learning institution. You should never teach learners certain knowledge and skills (foundational competence) and then test them against other competencies at the workplace. Therefore, workplace outcomes, if they are specified in a curriculum, should also be aligned with knowledge and practical outcomes.

It is possible to have more than one practical outcome linked to just one theoretical outcome, and more than one workplace outcome linked to just one practical outcome. However, this should not be the result of shoddy design and should not complicate the work of the learning material developer. Stand-alone outcomes of any nature should not be included in a curriculum.

It is debatable if workplace outcomes should be specified in a curriculum, because reflexive competence is often integrated and on a relatively high level. It mostly takes rather long for most people to achieve reflexive competence. It also takes long before anybody can demonstrate reflexive competence, and the more an individual practices, the better she becomes at a task, for example doing surgery. Insistence on the achievement of reflexive competence as a precondition for certification can lead to inefficient learning. What happens in practice, however, is that the final assessment becomes a sham – learners are not properly tested, the learning institution is no longer involved in the assessment process for many possible reasons, many learners do not even attempt the final exam, and many more.

In closing, there should be a logical progression from practical competence to foundational competence to reflexive competence by offering learning aligned with knowledge outcomes, practical outcomes and workplace outcomes that are equal in number with knowledge, practical and workplace outcomes supporting one another towards the achievement of the purpose of the qualifications or part qualification. In my opinion formal learning to meet the requirements for certification should not include testing reflexive competence.


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Five misconceptions about RPL and the CAT system

ANGER 4Written by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

It is important to keep objectivity, flexibility and fairness in mind when conducting recognition of prior learning (RPL). Here are five misconceptions that people sometimes harbour about RPL:

  1. Credits earned for one qualification cannot be transferred to more than just the one qualification. People do not understand that credits are given in recognition of learning, no matter when and where the learning took place. They are so rigid and jealous of students achieving more than one qualification through careful planning of their studies that they actually include such preclusions in their RPL policies. All that is needed is a proper understanding of learning and the structure of qualifications. Once people understand that credits for one qualification can also count towards other qualifications, they accept this. That is the actual purpose of the credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) system. It does change the status of qualifications, but why is it a problem? A more flexible approach will improve efficiency in learning and is that not what we want?
  2. RPL is only accepted for gaining access to further studies. Using RPL exclusively as an entry requirement for further studies reduces RPL, and qualifications achieved through RPL, to something inferior to formal studies. This is an unfair and conceited attitude that should not be allowed.
  3. RPL is not a process of assessment. RPL is said to be a specialised pedagogical process. To begin with RPL is almost never an option for children, so it cannot be a pedagogical process. Secondly, it is an assessment process. People who claim that it is not an assessment process do not understand that RPL almost always consists of two processes, namely assessment and closing gaps in the candidate’s knowledge and skills. Closing the gap, i.e. additional learning, is sometimes not necessary, but assessment is always needed.
  4. Prior learning is measured against credits. This is probably because people recognise RPL only for access to further learning. They do not understand that RPL should be a holistic assessment process in which the candidate’s knowledge and skills are measured against the purpose of the qualification, not learning outcomes in a curriculum, contact time, self-study, work integrated learning, assignments previously done or examinations. All these things can, of course, be used as evidence of prior learning if available.
  5. RPL applies only to informal or non-formal learning. Any learning can count towards RPL, including RPL of formal learning. Furthermore, CAT only applies to formal learning exclusively because informal, coincidental, experiential social and any other non-accredited learning do not lead to credits that can be transferred. Not allowing credits to count towards more than one qualification renders the CAT system worthless.

In closing, it is rather alarming that some quality assurance bodies and learning providers are completely closed to any arguments that differ from their rigid stance. We need to discuss issues like this and we need to have open minds to the arguments of others. Not one of us knows everything and rigidity causes serious damage to any learning system.

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Stand or sit during facilitation

Course- 117871

Date- 6-10 March 2017


This particular group was very lively and outspoken, they were super eager about this particular course because everyone knows that the facilitation course is so much fun. However during the week I got an odd question that I never expected, and to be honest I never really thought about it before. One of the learners asked “is it really necessary to stand while facilitating, or can you sit’?

I pondered on the question for a second and re-directed it back to the class to find out what were their thoughts and feelings about the matter. Surprisingly, most of them felt that siting while facilitating was perfectly okay. I’ve always felt that it’s more professional to stand and facilitate and move around a bit, of course you don’t want to distract them either, but sitting while facilitating has always been something I’d frown upon. I feel that it’s not professional to sit and facilitate. However if you have a medical condition that doesn’t allow you to stand for so long, in that case I personally would feel that it’s more than okay to sit down, however the quality of facilitation must never be compromised whether sitting or standing while facilitating.

I would love to hear other people’s opinions on the matter. What do you think? Should you sit or stand while facilitating?








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Scientism – where am I missing the point?


I actually stopped my discussion of research paradigms halfway through because nobody seemed interested. My articles did not attract any discussion or even criticism. I need to share my notes on scientism with you, though, because my interpretation might be completely wrong. I am hoping that some research wizard will point my cognitive dissonance out to me.

Scientism is discussed here as representing the technicity group of paradigms. It is unlikely that researchers using qualitative methodology will adopt this paradigm because it is usually used when quantitative research is conducted. Supporters of the scientism paradigm claim that it is based on the “rule of law of science”.[1] Even so, some scientists do regard scientism as a paradigm that can be used as the favoured assumption when doing qualitative research.

The “rule of science” refers to the prescription of a domain, a set of practices and an attitude to the world. This actually applies to any paradigm because all paradigms are assumptions upon which research is developed. Scientism, it is said, manages the match between the rule of science and the knowledge emerging from the rule, ensuring that the rule adjusts so that it is never too out of sync with what is known. If this is the case, then I cannot see how one can use scientism as your paradigmatic assumption if you follow a grounded theory research design. In grounded theory you are supposed to have an open mind, allowing your data to lead you to conclusions and recommendations. In grounded theory you need to accept your research findings even if it does not agree with what you had in mind. Actually, this should apply to any scientific research.

Scientism, it is said, creates a closed system of knowing that certifies itself by scientific discoveries or evidence that fits its own closed system of paradigm understanding. If the new knowledge does not fit the paradigm, it is usually assumed that there was something wrong with the methodology that produces it, rarely with the paradigm understanding itself. In terms of the nature of research this is a rather risky and questionable point of view, because research should always provide for the possibility that a hypothesis can be disproven, which does not mean that there is anything wrong with the research process, gathered information or conclusions made. It might be possible that not sufficient information was gathered or that the information was not sufficiently corroborated. However, questioning the methodology because you do not agree with the research findings may well be extremely subjective and unscientific.

What do you think? Where am I missing the point?

[1] Accessed on 05/04/2017.

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The paranoia of quality assurance bodies with libraries

ChildAdultArticle by Dr J.P. Nel, MD Mentornet

It is an international trend for library budgets to be slashed. Especially in South Africa public libraries are disappearing at an alarming rate where they are needed the most, namely in rural areas and small towns. To make things worse, people read much less than two decades ago. Printed books are being replaced by e-books and even they are read by a rather small percentage of the population.

Computers and the internet are not bad news only. Dedicated computer programmes render the work of librarians much more accurate and less time consuming even if not always much easier.

The nature, layout and even functions of libraries are also changing rapidly. Libraries used to be halls filled with printed materials and trained staff to assist library members to find the information that they need. Now book shelves are being replaced by computer screens. More tables and chairs are brought in, although they are increasingly arranged like stools and round tables in a bar. Library members are allowed to enjoy coffee, cold drinks, sandwiches and cakes while doing research in the library. Books on computer no longer take up much physical space. The internet provides access to more information than the book shelves of any library in the world. Libraries look more like internet cafes than the quiet, clinical rows upon rows of books of some two decades ago.

In spite of all the changes in the library environment, quality assurance bodies still insist that learning institutions must have libraries with a minimum number of books. This, and many other questions about the validity and relevance of quality criteria used by quality assurance bodies, which I will discuss in a number of articles after this one, makes me wonder if quality assurance bodies make any contribution to the quality of learning offered by both public and private learning institutions.


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