"It is better to understand little, than to misunderstand a lot." ....Anatole France.

Commentary of the Day - February 11, 2012: Under Construction.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

A few years back my friend Poor Elijah was reading about constructivism in a leading education journal.  The introduction featured the statement that "no one can live in the world of education" without realizing that "constructivism is more than one thing."  Before you start feeling bad that you've missed out on something important, most of the world in or out of education, except for constructivists, is unaware that constructivism is anything at all, never mind more than one thing.

On the other hand, even though the term itself may be unfamiliar to most Americans, most of us are familiar with the theory.  Given its pervasive influence on public education, the practices it promotes ought to figure more prominently in public policy discussions.

Constructivism bills itself as an "approach to teaching based on research about how people learn."  Constructivism also claims to encourage students to "think and explain their reasoning."  This is in apparent contrast to all the other approaches to teaching that are deliberately based on how people don't learn, and that don't encourage students to think.

According to constructivists, each individual "constructs" his own knowledge, rather than "receiving it from others."  In case you're not exactly sure what this gush of jargon means, it translates into the constructivist notion that students should "actively discover information on their own."

There's nothing wrong with learning by doing.  When I want kids to sense the scale of early sea voyages, I take them outside and arrange them so they form the outline of the Nina.  That way they can visualize how small it was.  Closer to home, kids sometimes learn that the stove is hot when they touch it themselves.  Of course, they also get burned that way.  That's why you try to tell them ahead of time.

One constructivist science program eliminates books and dispatches sixth graders to "follow the science" and rediscover -- or reconstruct -- the wisdom of the ages.  Except what happens when they "reconstruct" that the Sun revolves around the Earth.  Hopefully someone who knows better, like Copernicus or their teacher, will be there to help them "receive" the knowledge that it doesn't.

One constructivist journal contributor explained that in constructivist classrooms, students "discuss, debate, hypothesize, investigate, and take viewpoints."  This is "instead of just listening, reading, and working through routine exercises."

First of all, debating, discussing, and articulating viewpoints aren't the exclusive domain of constructivism.  They're the hallmarks of good teaching anywhere.  Second, the "just" in front of "listening" and "reading" suggests a dangerous bias.  Similarly, thanks to constructivist-oriented instruction, exercises where students practice skills are sadly far from routine anymore.

In an effort to explain away an obvious flaw in his philosophy, the journal editor emphatically denied that constructivism "prompts students to construct faulty information."  One of the contributors unblushingly accounted for this seeming miracle by declaring that true constructivists "never assess students on right or wrong answers."

Remember that the next time somebody asks why so many American students donít seem to know very much.

Yes, measuring the classroom with a meter stick gets kids out of their seats, while practicing routine multiplication tables doesn't.  And listening and reading can be less engaging than acting out Pickett's Charge.  But having twelve-year olds race at each other from opposite ends of the playground isnít likely to teach them much about the Civil War.

Many kids, of course, will go home and report that they had a good time.  It also makes a great publicity still for the school newsletter.  In an age where everything's supposed to be fun, that frequently counts for a lot.

Reformers sneer down their restructured noses at lecturing.  They deride teachers who employ this technique as "sages on the stage."  They prefer the "teacher as facilitator" model.  Facilitators are people who help students "construct their own knowledge bases."

It may not be fashionable, but sometimes the best way, meaning the most efficient way, to give kids information is to give kids information.  Knowing stuff is the only way that all those higher level activities like debating can happen.  Sure, let them "think" and "investigate."  If students want to construct something, let them construct their opinions.  But let them build what they believe based on facts as they are, not the misconstruction of facts, or the absence of facts.

Consider this sample constructivist assignment.  Each student writes a letter from a French aristocrat to an Italian aristocrat, describing the French Revolution.  Sounds creative, doesn't it.  That's the trouble.  Most students get very creative.  That's because they have to make stuff up.  You can't apply your knowledge if you don't have much.

For the love of Socrates, we're talking about kids who are blissfully unaware that France and Italy share the same continent.  Presumably that's because they haven't yet constructed that piece of knowledge.

How does this happen?  Constructivists favor a "student-generated curriculum."  When do kids start deciding what they need to learn?  Try first grade.

One article promoted a yearlong program where small groups of fully mature eleven-year-olds roam their city, adult-free, empowered to "plan their own learning."  One alleged advantage to the program is it doesn't teach the students "a predetermined set of learning objectives."

In case you're confused, this is supposed to be a good thing.

Finally, ponder this gem.  According to constructivist dogma, we need to abandon the misconception that "learning is hard work."  Apparently this isn't true.  Learning is actually "effortless and independent of reward and punishment."

I bet you didnít know that.

Neither do the kids Iíll see tomorrow.

© 2012, Peter Berger.
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Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: Many of Poor Elijah's criticisms of doctrinaire constructivist educational theory are well-founded.  Those of us who teach or who have taught physics know that many students indeed do try to make sense of the physical world around them, i.e. they attempt to construct their own knowledge of the physical universe.  However, we also know that most of the students who do this create models of physical processes that are incorrect.  For example, the majority of students in an introductory physics class will say that a force has to be exerted on a mass to keep it moving at constant velocity.  In fact, this is incorrect.  An object will move at constant velocity only if the net force on the object is zero.  The reason for this misconception is that most students are not sophisticated enough to take frictional forces into account when they build their naive models of the physical world they experience.  Direct instruction is needed to help these students overcome this misconception.  (See our February 4, 2012 commentary for another example of the failure of constructivist teaching to lead students to the correct understanding of a physical law.)

At the same time, most teachers know that exclusive reliance on direct instruction has its own pitfalls.  Most younger students, and many older students, have limited attention spans.  Lecturing non-stop for a full class period usually is not a good idea.  Other learning activities need to be interspersed with the lecture to give students a chance to digest the facts and ideas presented by direct instruction.  These activities will vary depending on the subject that is being presented, but the goal always should be the same.  Namely, to reinforce what has been said in the lecture, and to help the students keep their focus.  And, it's not a bad idea to get kids out of their seats now and then.


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