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Structuralism in Education

Ryan Bernido is an educator and writer. He has expertise in Education.



Structuralism has independently developed across fields. Among the fields where
structuralism is introduced are psychology, linguistics, and anthropology with the pioneering founders Wilhem Wundt, Edward Tichener, Ferdinand de Saussare, and Claude Levi-Strauss, respectively. Each of them has their own contribution to the field.

The systematic movement of structuralism in psychology had started in Germany and was introduced by Wilhelm Wundt and popularized by Edward B. Titchener. Wundt, regarded as the ‘Father of Structuralism’, was a German physiologist and psychologist who pioneered the idea of structuralism (voluntarism as previously termed by Wundt). He supposed that, by classifying conscious experiences into analyzable small parts, mind could be broken down into structures for us to analyze and examine it (Kendra, 2020). His student, however, Titchener decided to popularize the ideas of structuralism by changing much of what his mentor had taught him; however, he retained and used the technique called introspection to understand the conscious mind. Titchener applied introspection in his study by means of observation and analysis. He believed that conscious experiences are difficult to control in an experiment as behavior is not. Ferdinand de Saussare was the greatest face of structuralism in linguistics. He posited that language is a structured system. This means that understanding language is based on its convention and structural rules –grammar. In anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss pioneered structuralism and asserted that human thoughts have something to do with cultural phenomena. This implies that actions of individuals are governed by the structures of his or her thoughts.

Founders of Structuralism Across Fields

Founders of Structuralism in Psychology

The main idea of structuralism has started in the field of psychology. In psychology, structuralism was introduced by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) in 1879 at the University at Leipzig. He is a German physiologist and psychologist and considered as thea Father of Structuralism. In 1873, Wundt published his book titled Principles of Physiological Psychology as he viewed psychology as systematic study of conscious experience to identify components of consciousness and how those components combined to result in our conscious experience (Andrade and Walker, 2021). Wundt started to introduce the idea of structuralism by means of founding the very first laboratory devoted for the experimental psychology in 1879 in Germany. His goal was to record thoughts and sensations, and to analyze them into their constituent elements, in much the same way as a chemist analyses chemical compounds, to get at the underlying structure (Lopez-Garrido,2021). This school of thought pioneered by Wundt is previously known as voluntarism, defined as the process of organizing the mind. This voluntarism has evolved to structuralism as popularized by Wundt’s student, Edward B. Titchener.

Edward B. Titchener (1867-1927) was an English psychologist who was taught by Wilhelm Wundt for many years. Titchener had popularized his mentor’s schools of thought, voluntarism, by creating a new version of it, turning voluntarism (the process of organizing the mind) into structuralism (the analysis of the basic elements that constitute the mind); reason why structuralist school of thoughts was similarly credited to him. He believed that by systematically defining and categorizing the elements of the mind, researchers could understand the structure of the mental processes (Cherry, 2020); this idea is based on the previous idea of Wundt who believed that the mind could be broken down into structures by classifying conscious experiences into small parts that could be analyzed, like other sciences. Titchener was the one who brought structuralism in the land of Unites States of America; despite changing much of what Wundt had taught.

Founder of Structuralism in Linguistics

Another figure in structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussare (1857-1923). He is a Swiss linguist whose ideas on structure in language laid the foundation for much of the approach to and progress of the linguistic sciences in the 20th century (Britannica, 2021). He asserted that language is a social phenomenon, and a structured system is synchronically (as it exists at any time) and diachronically (as it changes in the course of time). He introduced the terms “parole,” or the speech of the individual person, and “langue,” the system underlying speech activity in the system of linguistics.

De Saussare proposed that languages were constructed of hidden rules that practitioners ‘know’ but are unable to articulate (Briggs and Mayer, 2021). This means that we may all speak the same language, we are not all able to fully articulate the grammatical rules that govern why we arrange words in the order we do; we understand these rules at an implicit level, and we are aware that we correctly use these rules when we are able to successfully decode what another person is saying to us.

Founder of Structuralism in Anthropology

Structuralism in the field of anthropology, vis-à-vis cultural anthropology, is introduced by the French anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss (1908-2009). Levi-Strauss studied the analysis of cultural systems such as kinship and mythical systems in terms of the structural relations among their elements. One of his contributions in the field is the publication of his major book titled Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (The Elementary Structures of Kinship) in 1949 which has a revised edition in 1967. Kupier (2021) cited that Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism attempted to reduce the enormous amount of knowledge about cultural systems to what he believed were the fundamentals, the formal relationships among their elements. He viewed cultures as systems of communication, and he developed models based on structural linguistics, information theory, and cybernetics to interpret them.

Concepts and Definitions

Structuralism refers to several theories across disciplines sharing a common assumption that structural relationships between concepts vary between different cultures/languages and that these relationships can be usefully exposed and explored (NWE, 2021). It explores the relationships between fundamental principal elements upon which some higher "structures" and "structural networks" are built by which meaning is produced within a particular person, system, or culture. As cited by Briggs and Mayer (2021), structuralism was influenced by the schools of phenomenology and of Gestalt psychology. Phenomenology is concerned with accurately describing consciousness. Consciousness, as they perceived, was always conscious of something, and that picture, that whole, cannot be separated from the object or the subject but is the relationship between them. Gestalt psychology maintained that all human conscious experience is patterned, emphasizing that the whole is always greater than the parts, making it a holistic view, fostering the view that the human mind functions by recognizing or imposing structures.

Structuralism in Psychology

Structuralism is considered as the primary school of thought in psychology, and it refers to the idea of analyzing the adult mind or an evaluation of the sum of experience from birth to the present in terms of the simplest definable components and followed by finding the way in which these components fit together in complex forms (Britannica, 2020; Alleydog.com, 2021). Structuralism sought to correlate the experiences to physical events through introspection, self-reports (of sensations), viewpoints, feelings, and emotions; experiences should be evaluated as a fact, as it exists without analyzing the significance or value of that experience. Structuralism believed that the whole is equal to the sum of the parts, which becomes the foundation of the idea that breaking down the idea in its most basic parts yields an understanding of the brain and its function.

Structuralism in Linguistics

Looking for meaning in the relation between things, rather than things in isolation is the main is main position of structuralism in linguistics. As an example, the color “red”, “green” and “yellow” means “stop”, “go”, and “caution” in relation to each other, that is when related to the context of traffic lights (Encyclopedia, 2021). However, if it is associated to other contexts, these colors may mean differently.

Structuralism in this field means language as a system of signs constructed by convention, relation, and interaction not by isolation. Structuralism in language has four distinctions as posited by Ferdinand de Sausarre. These are distinction between synchronic and diachronic, distinction between langue and parole, distinction between syntagmatic and associative (paradigmatic), and distinction between signifier and signified. These four distinctions are further explained in the succeeding section on approaches of structuralism.

Structuralism in Anthropology

In anthropology, structuralism is an analysis of culture viewed as systems in terms of the structural relations among the elements. The theory of Levi Strauss states that the universal patterns in cultural systems are products of the invariant structure of the human mind –viewed as a repository of a great variety of natural material, from which it selects pairs of elements that can be combined to form diverse structures. Additionally, in the ideas of Levi Strauss, it is believed that pairs of oppositions can be split into singular elements for use in forming new oppositions. Structuralism in the field of anthropology has also identified that the elementary structure, or unit of kinship, on which all systems are built is a set of four types of organically linked relationships; these are the following:

  1. brother/sister,
  2. husband/wife,
  3. father/son, and
  4. mother’s brother/sister’s son.

The founder of structuralism along anthropology stressed that the emphasis in structural analysis of kinship must be on human consciousness, not on objective ties of descent or consanguinity (Britannica, 2021).

As the idea of structuralism developed and applied to other fields, various definitions by many scholars are also established. Levi-Strauss, Marx, and Althusser, for example, claimed that structuralism analyzes and explains invariant structures in and constitutive of nature, society, and the human psyche (ScienceDirect, 2021). According to Balbosa de Almeida (2015), structuralism is a mode of knowledge of nature and human life that is interested in relationships rather than individual objects or, alternatively, where objects are defined by the set of relationships of which they are part and not by the qualities possessed by them taken in isolation. However, Smith (2020) added that it is sought not simply to identify structures or relationships per se, but rather to look behind or beneath the visible and conscious designs (beliefs, ideas, behaviors) of active human subjects (surface manifestations) to expose or unearth how those designs are in fact outputs, effects, consequences, products generated by underlying causes, hidden mechanisms, or a limited number of “deep” structures that are universal to the human mind.

Despite these many ideas on how structuralism can really be defined, structuralism advances that the structure of conscious experience could be understood by analyzing the basic elements of thoughts and sensations; a theory of consciousness that seeks to analyze the elements of mental experiences, such as sensations, mental images, and feelings, and how these elements combine to form more complex experiences (Lopez-Garrido, 2021). Further, structuralism generally holds that all activities of individuals and its products, even perception and thought, are created and not natural, and that everything has meaning because of the language system.

Dynamics of Structuralism Across Fields

Introspection: Structuralism's Main Approach in Psychology

Introspection is a process that involves looking inward to examine one's own thoughts and emotions (Cherry, 2020). This process was first used by Wilhelm Wundt in his experiments as he introduced the idea of structuralism. This process is also called experimental self-observation, involving training people to carefully and objectively as possible to analyze the content of their own thoughts; Wundt called this process as internal perception. The process Wundt used in his experiment involves two specific experimental conditions in which an external stimulus was designed to produce a scientifically observable experience of the mind. Andrade and Walker (2021) cited these two conditions as:

a. the use of “trained” or practiced observers, who could immediately observe and report a reaction; and

b. the use of repeated stimuli that always produced the same experience in the subject and allowed the subject to expect and be fully attentive to the reaction.

Andrade and Walker (2021) further explained that these two conditions set to eliminate interpretation in the reporting of internal experiences and to counter the argument that there is no way to know that an individual is observing their mind or consciousness accurately, since it cannot be seen by any other person. The introspection approach was adapted by Edward Titchener in his attempt to further the studies of his mentor. Titchener used the approach to focus on the structures of the human mind and believed that the use of introspection could be a way to discover the complexity of mind. Titchener’s introspection approach involved observers who had been rigorously trained to analyze their feelings and sensations when shown a simple stimulus.

Titchener's Structuralism

According to Lopez-Garrido (2021), Titchener proposed 3 elementary states of mind or consciousness; these are the following:

(a) sensations (sights, sounds, tastes),

(b) images (components of thoughts), and

(c) affections (components of emotions).

These 3 states of consciousness could be related into their properties, which Titchener decided were quality, intensity, duration, clearness, and extensity. Accordingly, quality can be referred to as “cold” or “red” which distinguishes each element from the others. Intensity can be related to how strong, loud, or bright the sensation is while duration refers to course of a sensation over time; how long it lasts. Clearness is the role of attention in consciousness – clearer if attention is directed toward it.

Lopez-Garrido, however, disputed this idea, as he stated:

| Pictures and expressions of warmth could be separated further into just bunches of sensations. It can therefore be concluded that by following this train of reasoning all the thoughts in question were pictures, which being developed from rudimentary sensations implied that all perplexing thinking and thought could in the end be separated into simply the sensations which he could get at through introspection. |

From these 3 elements of consciousness, Lopez-Garrido posited also that another issue in Titchener's hypothesis of structuralism was the topic of how the psychological components consolidated and interfaced with one another to shape any type of conscious experience; Titchener’s decisions were founded on thoughts of associationism and centered around the law of contiguity, which is the idea the elements combine. Further, Titchener had identified the connection between the physical process and the conscious experience - he wanted to specifically discover the relationship between the conscious experience and the physical processes. Lopez-Garrido also cited that Titchener believed that physiological cycles give a continuous foundation that give mental cycles a coherence they in any case would not have, which follows that sensory system doesn't cause any form of conscious experience yet can be utilized to clarify a few attributes of mental events.

De Saussare's Structuralism on Linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussare had asserted that language is a social phenomenon, and a structured system with four distinctions as follows:

  1. synchronic and diachronic,
  2. langue and parole,
  3. syntagmatic and associative (paradigmatic), and
  4. signifier and signified.

Mambrol (2016) stated that the distinction between synchronic and diachronic refers to the study of the structure and functions of language at a particular point of time, and over a period respectively. Langue refers to language as a structural system (grammar of a culture or society) based on certain rules while parole is the individual expression of language or the actual utterances of individuals and, by extension, the actual actions of individuals in a social structure. Syntagmatic means relations between words or smaller units within a sentence or the relations between elements with a cultural context or convention such as the traffic light sequence in the preceding texts. Associative or pragmatic is the relation between those elements and what they mean or the relationships of the interchangeable units in a language. Signifier is a word or symbol that stands for something while signified is what the word means; these two combined is called sign which De Saussare believed to be conventional and arbitrary, and that both terms are psychological in nature, implying that there is no one-to-one relation between the signifier and signified.

With the foregoing discussion on language structuralism, we can say that:

  1. meaning of words may change over time,
  2. language or words can be expressed differently by individuals, a
  3. meaning of words or groups of words depend on the convention of society, and
  4. language is arbitrary.

Levi-Strauss' Structuralism

Structuralism in anthropology is pioneered by Claude Levi Strauss. In anthropology, structuralism focuses on the effects of universal patterns in human thought on cultural phenomena (Butler, 2011) as a result of the subconscious, of universal human knowledge. The relationship between norms of society and thought process of the mind becomes logical thought which turn into actions, thoughts and actions, and latter processed to establish concepts. This process is called psychic unity –a process which states that human species, regardless of culture and race, have common basic psychological composition. In Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, there is an idea of binary opposition such as "life vs. death," "culture vs. nature," or "self vs. other”. Consequently, this idea means that each individual concept has an opposite concept that it is co-dependent on known as the unity of opposites –no one of these ideas can exist without the other.

Murphy (2018) cited that Levi-Strauss’ structuralism represents a creative structure that is more than the sum of its parts. Structuralism is both a perspective and a method that assumes that culture is a system that can be objectively and empirically analyzed in terms of the meaningful relations and contrasts existing between minimal, paired, or binary mental units. This means that structuralism also assumes that culture is a cognitive phenomenon. Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism attempted to reduce the enormous amount of knowledge about cultural systems to what he believed were the fundamentals, the formal relationships among their elements; cultures are viewed as systems of communication (Kuiper, 2021). It conclusively saying that there is a connection between the events of the lived world and a deeper structure of abstract relationships and ideas that provides meaning to the events (APA, 2021).

Implications to Education and Learning

Structuralism has flourished in various field such psychology, linguistics, and anthropology. We have seen in the previous sections that this school of thoughts had developed and been introduced separately in different fields. In psychology, structuralism had been introduced by Wundt and Titchener focusing on understanding the mind or consciousness through self-introspection. In linguistics or field of language, Ferdinand De Saussare was the main proponent of structuralism. His works centered on understanding the meaning of language based on the relationship, interaction, and convention of the society. Structuralism on anthropology was pioneered by Claude Levi-Strauss who dig deeper into the relationship of human thoughts and cultural phenomena.

With the foregoing, we can see that structuralism can be used as one of the foundations in designing innovations in the teaching-learning process. Structuralism seen as understanding the whole by breaking them into essential parts which constitute meaning can really be beneficial in education. As teachers design his or her lessons, difficult topics or broad topics can be broken down into smaller and specific topic to help learners understand the concepts. In the design of curriculum and in the learning competencies in basic education of the Philippines, this can be related or associated with the unpacking of learning competencies where each learning competencies are divided into more specific learning objectives to facilitate the logical sequence delivery of topics or learning competencies. Upon unpacking the learning competencies into learning objectives, teachers can now easily design learning tasks to achieve the unpacked learning objectives leading to the desired learning competencies.

Another implication of structuralism in education is the idea of use of relationship between parts to understand the whole. Structuralism in linguistics stated that the relationship of words or convention of words constitutes the understanding of language. Considering this idea into the field of education, teachers must be able to use language which when used and expressed becomes understandable to learners. This means that teachers should avoid using language that are vague and which is not conventionally appropriate to the lesson; right choice of words must be observed in the delivery of lesson. Construction of lessons or materials should also be using structured sentence which is easy to understand and is in the context of the learners because as structuralism in linguistics highlighted language is arbitrary, hence meanings of words depend on the convention of the society.

Further, the structuralism on anthropology stated that human thoughts and cultural phenomena has relationship and interrelated. This means that learners behave the way they think. This further implies that teachers must be able to consider the backgrounds of learners who are misbehaving in the classroom to understand them and give them appropriate interventions. Teachers should not easily judge the learners whose actions or behaviors are against the school rules and regulations, rather counsel him or her and try to understand his way of thinking or cognitive structure of the child.

In education, structuralism is said to be based in cognitive theory of Jean Piaget (Wenhua, 2017). This idea believes that every cognitive activity has a certain cognitive structure and children’s cognitive structures are different from adults. Structuralism in education centers on the study teaching reforms, particularly on the following as cited by Wenhua:

  1. Focusing on the development of students’ intelligence and abilities during teaching process,
  2. Paying attention to teaching the basic structure of every subject; knowledge is a system of structurally related elements,
  3. Advocating early study, educators of structuralism emphasize that teachers should actively create learning environment for students to study, and use gestures, pictures, to make the knowledge understood easier and clearer,
  4. Advocating discovery learning; students acquire knowledge through their own thinking, and during the process, teachers should provide some indications and inspire students to think and to discuss,
  5. Playing assistant role in structural teaching,
  6. Using spiral curriculum to improve students; educators of structuralism believe that teachers should master the basic structure of this course before having classes, and then modify the new information according to students’ cognitive levels so that accepting degree will accord with students’ cognitive levels.


Based on the above discussions, the following statements can be deduced:

  1. Structuralism as a field had developed independently across disciplines.
  2. Structuralism in psychology had been introduced by Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener. This school of thoughts mainly focused on understanding and processing the mind by breaking it down into analyzable parts through the process of introspection.
  3. Structuralism in linguistics as pioneered by Ferdinand de Sausarre posited that language is a structured system having four distinctions as follows:
    1. synchronic and diachronic,
    2. langue and parole,
    3. syntagmatic and associative (paradigmatic), and
    4. signifier and signified.
    5. Structuralism in psychology focused on the effects of universal patterns in human thoughts to cultural phenomena as asserted by Claude Levi-Strauss.
    6. Structuralism in education means reforms in teaching-learning process considering the different ideas of structuralism across fields.

Points to Ponder!

  1. What do you think are the best contributions of structuralism in education and learning?
  2. How will you apply the concepts and dynamics of structuralism in your professional practice?
  3. Can you identify weaknesses of structuralism? Discuss your criticisms on structuralism.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 RBN Library and Resource Center

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