The Relational Human: Towards a Unified Theory of Co-constructive Learning

  • Esther McMahon

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis presents two substantial contributions to the field; 1) a pedagogic knowledge base to evidence the practice of co-constructive learning and 2) a unified theory framework to underpin the practice of co-constructive learning. The practice based evidence illustrates that co-constructive learning comprises of Executive Functioning which involves flexibility, goal-oriented behaviour and working memory, all of which are supported by the practice of conceptual chunking. In addition, co-constructive learning is identifiable through Co-constructive Language (s) which involves the drive of self to respond to the call of other (other refers to people and everything in the environment). Co-constructive Language (s) also consists of synchronous verbal and non-verbal acts and a looking glass self which reflects significant other relationships and significant role expectations. These findings are underpinned by the unified theory framework which defines Executive Functioning as Domain General processes which guide distributed networks and regions of the brain linked to association and Co-constructive Language (s) as Domain Specific processes which communicate flows of interactions. The practice based evidence illustrates how co-constructive learning happens via Self in relation to Other which is comprised of flows of mental states as movement between mental state abstraction (symbolic languages) and mental state representation (mental models).Through this socially-oriented and co-constructive process of inference, mental models are attributed with knowledge and understanding to formulate mental state attribution. In this way, Co-constructive Language (s) acts as a symbol to abstract mental states in order to make them visible and attributable to other. Co-constructive Language (s) reveals the convergence of different frames of reference in terms of intention (what the individual was intending to abstract and represent) rather than the convergence of different experiences (the abstractions and representations remain unique to the individual’s own perceptions). These findings are captured in the theme consensus of intention, which describes agreement and understanding of any kind as a leap of faith: an act of imagination and story making. This ability to construct stories of intention gives salience to our diverse experiences so that we can transcend our subjectivity in order to become intersubjective beings in a shared thought community. As such, stories of intention provide the means for accumulating a much wider set of knowledge that extends beyond the finite self to encompass the infinite other. In addition, the how of co-constructive learning is further explained through responsible autonomy which suggests the counter-intuitive idea that authentic and meaningful collaboration takes place in the space between responsible self-expression. The more we foster the responsible expression of the individual the more we may foster the desire to co-cooperate, share, and integrate our individuality into the group. These findings are underpinned by the unified theory framework which defines a Domain Relevant account for co-constructive learning which integrates domain-general processes with domain-specific processes. In this way, human learning emerges as an interactive system, existing in the relational space between domain general processing (executive functioning) and domain-specific processing (co-constructive languages). The practice based evidence captures particular conditions which are present when constructive learning happens, these are flows of interaction, circles of attention and containment of difference. These conditions articulate specific outcomes on human development and learning which involve intersubjectivity, positive interdependence and cultures of diversity (diverse mental states, available perceptions, subjectivities, modes of language, structures of interaction and types of relationship). The unified theory framework underpins these findings under the relational space analogy, which illustrates these conditions as opening and closing opportunities for co-constructive learning. In this way, the unified theory framework depicts the macro concept of the relational human as fundamental to the micro practice of co-constructive learning.
Date of Award13 Dec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorElisabeth Barratt Hacking (Supervisor) & Kathleen Bullock (Supervisor)

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