It seems that many people see constructivist teaching approaches as simply good teaching. Certainly, I used to believe that there was strong research evidence to support their use and didn’t really question this. After all, pretty much everyone seemed to agree. I had fallen for a mix of argument from popularity and argument from the authority of those who promote constructivism through education schools or as consultants.
Constructivism also possesses an element of truthiness. We all know that old-fashioned, lecture-style teaching is, well, old fashioned. And that has to be a bad thing, right?
In this post, I intend to chase the constructivist rabbit back down its hole. Brazenly mixing my metaphors, I am going to ask, “If constructivist teaching is the aspirin then what exactly is the headache?”
Headache: Poor levels of achievement
We might naively think that if constructivist teaching is simply good teaching then it should lead to better test scores. However, there is little evidence of this. Anywhere.
Instead, a whole culture of rationalisation has grown-up around constructivism and tests. To do well on tests, we merely need to regurgitate rote disconnected facts. Such regurgitation is, of course, useless and so we can dismiss evidence from test scores; evidence that tends to show the superiority of explicit instruction.
Educationalists often take their lead from America and it seems that the U.S. makes far more extensive use of multiple choice bubble tests than the rest of the world. Even so, it’s a little hard to swallow this rhetoric about tests only ever assessing rote memorisation. Even a multiple choice test, if well designed, can assess understanding; simply make one of the choices a common misconception. If the questions are then withheld until the date of the test – an advantage of much-maligned standardised tests – we can determine if students really do understand the principle rather than simply having learnt the right answer.
So I think this dismissal of tests is a convenient excuse.
Headache: Poor understanding
If we do accept the premise that most tests only assess recall then perhaps the advantage of constructivist teaching is that it enhances the non-assessed understanding.
Apparently, back in olden times, students learnt all sorts of things at school that they simply did not understand. In history, they were taught to parrot dates, oblivious to their significance. In mathematics, they were forced to memorise standard algorithms without ever understanding how these algorithms work. Presumably, the same must me true for Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore today whose students don’t actually understand the maths that they so skilfully apply.
I disagree that knowledge and understanding can be dichotomised in this way as qualitatively different things. Although a useful concept, understanding basically consists of more and better knowledge. To use the psychological jargon, it results from well-developed schema. If this is the case, it is unlikely that some forms of instruction will be good for improving knowledge yet quite different ones are required for developing understanding.
A key experiment by Klahr and Nigam tested this notion directly. They taught science students about the principle of controlling variables either explicitly or through the students performing their own investigations. As you might expect, far fewer in the latter group learnt the principle. But of those who did they were no better at later evaluating science fair posters. Their understanding was not superior.
Headache: Poor motivation
So perhaps constructivism does not directly lead to higher tests scores or greater understanding. On the other hand, everyone knows that traditional school is awful and boring; Ken Robinson says so. Perhaps a constructivist teaching approach is more motivating for students? Ultimately, adoption of constructivist methods will lead to a great leap forward as more students develop a passion for science, maths and history. The initial dip in test scores will be far outweighed by the greater uptake of conceptually demanding electives.
You will find studies that seem to show increased motivation from constructivist approaches. But this is usually pretty easy to explain by the fact that enthusiastic teachers implementing a new program that they believe-in will pass that enthusiasm on to their students, particularly if the approach is compared with business-as-usual.
Once you think about constructivism for a little while, the proposition that these methods are more intrinsically motivating becomes deeply implausible. Is it really motivating to be presented with novel problems that you have no idea how to solve? Indeed, the students in Project Follow Through who were exposed to a program that systematically built the skills needed for problem-solving not only outperformed other students in tests of problem-solving, but also had greater increases in self-concept when compared to more constructivist models.
I can see some logic in the motivational power of projects because students can follow their interests (if allowed). But what if a science project takes us away from learning any actual science? A few years of making posters about monster trucks might be fun but once the inevitable confrontation with reality occurs, and students realise that they don’t know any science, you are unlikely to see a huge uptake in science electives.
Constructivists also sink their own argument when they insist on designing learning experiences around the mundane and commonplace in the name of ‘relevance’. The idea that students will be more motivated by a project to discover how their local community disposes of its waste than a topic about dinosaurs is obviously absurd. There is also a whiff of chauvinism; kids like these couldn’t possibly appreciate great art or poetry or the abstract beauty of mathematics because they cannot see any farther than the end of the street.
So, what is it? What is the headache that constructivism cures? When you investigate, it seems that the idea that constructivism represents good teaching is a classic bait-and-switch.
I think that lots of people just like the idea of it.