FAQ – Constructivism

This series of posts tackles some common issues that keep arising as I write about education.

Question

Why do you write about constructivism as if it is a theory of teaching when it is actually a theory of learning?

Answer

It is true that constructivism is a theory of learning or, more properly, a set of learning theories. In essence, constructivists suggest that we learn by relating new knowledge to what we already know. In schema theory, knowledge is organised in the mind within interrelated schema rather than a flat system of files such as in a filing cabinet.

I find this relatively uncontroversial although I disagree with those who argue for a more postmodernist interpretation; that all that actually exists are different people’s perceptions as represented by these schema; that there is no external reality. That seems quite mad. But if constructivism, more broadly, is true then it must describe how we learn whether we are reading, watching a lecture, solving a problem or are engaged in a debate.

Yet some educators really do draw implications for specific teaching methods from constructivist theory. It is these methods that I am generally arguing against because I find the evidence in favour of them to be weak.

For instance, in this article for ASCD, constructivism is defined as having five properties:

  • First, constructivist teachers seek and value students’ points of view. Knowing what students think about concepts helps teachers formulate classroom lessons and differentiate instruction on the basis of students’ needs and interests.
  • Second, constructivist teachers structure lessons to challenge students’ suppositions. All students, whether they are 6 or 16 or 60, come to the classroom with life experiences that shape their views about how their worlds work. When educators permit students to construct knowledge that challenges their current suppositions, learning occurs. Only through asking students what they think they know and why they think they know it are we and they able to confront their suppositions.
  • Third, constructivist teachers recognize that students must attach relevance to the curriculum. As students see relevance in their daily activities, their interest in learning grows.
  • Fourth, constructivist teachers structure lessons around big ideas, not small bits of information. Exposing students to wholes first helps them determine the relevant parts as they refine their understandings of the wholes.
  • Finally, constructivist teachers assess student learning in the context of daily classroom investigations, not as separate events. Students demonstrate their knowledge every day in a variety of ways. Defining understanding as only that which is capable of being measured by paper-and-pencil assessments administered under strict security perpetuates false and counterproductive myths about academia, intelligence, creativity, accountability, and knowledge.

Some of this is clearly just a grab for apple-pie statements. The idea that constructivist teachers value students’ points of view is a bit like saying that they favour treating students with respect, the implication being that it’s those nasty non-constructivist teachers who don’t care what students think.

But there are other statements that set-out a clear agenda. The requirement for ‘relevance’ places a barrier to the selection of abstract curriculum items such as the Ancient Egyptians, quadratic equations or romantic poetry. I would characterise this as constructivism’s commitment to the mundane and commonplace.

We can also see that teaching must proceed from the whole-to-the-part rather than from the part-to-the-whole. My reading of the evidence is that this is actually a poor way to build robust schema and so it is not necessarily something implied by constructivist learning theory. And yet, here it is, stated as such.

Finally, we have the requirement for classroom investigations, side-lining more didactic, teacher-led forms of instruction. This is why constructivist teaching is often associated with problem-based-learning, project-based-learning and inquiry learning whilst being seen as in contrast to anything approaching explicit instruction.

Indeed, the authors go on to describe a lesson of which they approve;

“…a teacher asked 9th graders to ponder the effect of temperature on muscle movement. Students had ice, buckets of water, gauges for measuring finger-grip strength, and other items to help them consider the relationship. The teacher asked a few framing questions, stated rules for handling materials safely, and then gave the students time to design their experiments. He posed different questions to different groups of students, depending on their activities and the conclusions that they seemed to be drawing. He continually asked students to elaborate or posed contradictions to their responses, even when they were correct.”

Interestingly, they later suggest that it is incorrect to conflate constructivism with discovery learning and yet this vignette clearly represents a form of student-led discovery.

On a final, personal note, it is relatively recently that I have called constructivist approaches by this name. Before I engaged with the research, I would have known them as ‘the use of science investigations’ or ‘problem solving’ or even ‘good practice’. I think this is interesting.

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29 Comments on “FAQ – Constructivism”

  1. Geoff petty says:

    I agree that constructivism is not discovery learning indeed it can help us to understand good explicit instruction.
    http://geoffpetty.com/for-teachers/formative-teaching/

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks Greg, and what an awful paper. I imagine the subset of people who are fans of ASCD and critical thinking weren’t involved in its editing or publishing or don’t exist.

    I would add that even the phrase constructivist teacher is conflating a theory of the science of learning with the act of teaching.

    Would you add another FAQ or two on problem based learning and using problems as a part of learning.

    It is unfortunate that people coining their simple phrases for what are complex topics don’t take more care. Even the terms direct instruction and explicit instruction cause difficulties. No one proposing these thinks of them as merely providing instruction yet the critics compulsively create straw man arguments using that assumption.

    As another example, Jumpmath.org has taken to calling its approach guided discovery. All their material looks very much like what you call explicit instruction. Is their new stance just a marketing approach or a meaningful departure from explicit instruction as you understand it?

    • Stan says:

      Further on jumpmath.org. They are a very interesting case. An unpleasant take on their current description of their approach is that they operate in an environment where you simply cannot get your important message out unless you include the terms discovery learning, differentiated instruction and multiple representations. A more positive take is that they are using what is worthwhile from those ideas and incorporating them with the correct balance of instruction and assessment based teaching. Further they are describing things in a way that will appeal to those who like the ideas behind these terms but providing the necessary balance with other ideas.

      The nice thing is that they offer extremely detailed descriptions of a complete grade 1 to 8 curriculum. It is not necessary to interpret what they mean by their general approach. You can examine the details of what they mean in a huge range of lessons.

      • Stan says:

        I was referring to jump math here but weirdly wordpress doesn’t show it at least on IE. It is there in the html source but not showing above.

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