Chasing the constructivist rainbow

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Many teachers start their careers with the idea that implicit forms of instruction are somehow better than simply explaining things to students. This probably originates in teacher training institutions with their focus on ‘theory‘ and attachment to falsified ideas such as Piaget’s stage theories. It seems that these ideas are often presented as essentially true. Maybe they are dressed-up in the scientific-sounding theory of constructivism or maybe they are advanced with an appeal to social justice.

From my experience arguing with those who continue to promote constructivist views, I think I have identified a number of stages in the argument. The evidence for constructivism appears to lie at the end of a rainbow; it recedes as you approach it.

Stage 1: Constructivism leads to better learning of facts and skills

This is a fairly naive view but many people start off with it. Constructivism is simply better than old-fashioned approaches and it’s been tested against them, right? Well, yes, it has been tested a number of times. In weak trial designs we might find a positive effect – as we do with virtually any educational intervention – but with stronger ones this washes away. The main constructivist approach to teaching early reading known as ‘whole language’ is nearly dead in its pure form but it has taken some killing, requiring reviews commissioned by the U.S. government, the U.K. government and  the Australian government as well as almost continuous activism from proponents of the alternative explicit approach known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics’. Constructivism still has a hold in maths education but few would now argue that it is the best way to learn maths facts or procedures as the evidence simply does not support this.

Stage 2: Constructivism leads to deeper learning

In the face of such evidence, the bulk of constructivists move on to Stage 2 where the evidence for the superiority of explicit methods in teaching facts and procedures is accepted. However, this tends to be characterised as the learning of basic skills and referred to pejoratively as ‘rote’ recall. Instead, constructivist methods are hailed as leading to deeper learning that transfers more readily to different contexts, demonstrating a greater level of conceptual understanding. The problem for this argument is that there is little evidence to support this view either (e.g. see this study).

Stage 3: Constructivism is more motivating

Can the constructivists at least own motivation? Well, no. In most studies, the approaches that lead to the most learning are those that develop the greatest long-term motivation (for instance, see this classic paper). There is no surprise here – we are motivated by getting better at something. So, if we look for the methods that lead to the most learning then we will, by default, tend to also find the most motivating ones. 

I think the reason that this is so hard to reconcile for many teachers is that there is a point of inertia before students have learnt much about a topic and achieved success where it can be hard to get them going, particularly if they have a low self-concept in a particular subject due to poor performance in the past. Yet there is little evidence that giving students real, authentic problems to solve – a typically constructivist approach – is any better at getting over this dip than fairly standard classroom management techniques.

Sink position: There is nothing to debate

Some people adopt this position pretty early in the process. If you don’t want to take part in a frank and open debate about the merits of different teaching methods then one way of doing this is to deny the possibility of such a debate or to claim that there is no such thing as a teaching method. Strangely, the people who make these claims don’t tend to be as open-minded about didactic teaching approaches as this stance should imply.

What do you think?

If you are a teacher then the chances are that you have held one or more of these positions over time. You might not know the labels such as ‘constructivism’ but you will be familiar with the ideas. If so, it’s worth knowing that there is an alternative. Explicit forms of instruction provide a relatively simple framework that has been validated by epidemiological and experimental research. Explicit teaching is not inferior, despite the rhetoric. If you don’t know this yet then it’s worth taking a look at some of the evidence.

21 thoughts on “Chasing the constructivist rainbow

  1. In my education course at Uni, we were basically instructed (“encouraged” would be too gentle a term) to believe that educational theory began with Piaget, and that everyone who followed (the pantheon included the usual suspects – Vygotsky, Freire etc.) were basically elaborating on Piaget.

    It wasn’t until many years later, when I read one of Piaget’s books right through, that I realised what a crank he was.

  2. Most great teachers know when to use explicit teaching (learning facts etc) and when to use “constructivist” approaches (applying these facts to learning thus constructing further your understanding). And I don’t believe you have to have an either /or opinion. I don’t have to be wrong for others to be right! I find the premise that you can’t hold understanding of both constuctivist and scientific approaches at the same time bizarre.

    The article cited re: explicit vs constructivist in maths is quite outdated and there are good reasons why this research has not been replicated since. This is because you will never find the same setting as the original research as all classrooms are so different. Further, this is the reason why all educational approaches can’t be researched through cognitive psych or behaviorist methods only.

    Love the debate!

    1. Explicit teaching isn’t just about learning facts. You can explicitly teach students how to apply knowledge, solve different kinds of problems and so on. The Rosenshine link is good on that.

      1. Of course there is more to explicit teaching than just learning facts.Thnaks!
        Also, interesting your comment about “Whole language”. Whole language was debunked not just because its related to the construction of knowledge but because researchers discovered that learning to read is not related to learning to speak as originally thought in the 80’s

    2. I don’t have to be wrong for others to be right!

      I believe Greg calls that the “sink position” in his article.

      And even if there are multiple ways to be right, that is no proof yours is one of them.

      I would argue that no-one convinced of the wisdom or explicit techniques would wander into constructive techniques. The point of Explicit Instruction is to never deliberately leave the child in a state of bewilderment or indecision, and always to provide clear and explicit help. Any (pure) constructivism has no issues with students being confused, and is not interested in teacher led solutions. To a teacher convinced of explicit techniques, that is anathema.

      I teach more or less explicitly all the time. That doesn’t mean that I don’t let students work things out for themselves. The position that “traditional” teaching always had the teacher spell everything out is false and a straw man position. But I never deliberately leave students without a proper and clear instruction from me to aid them. I may let them discover their own methods, but I always check them to ensure they are sound, and coach them back if they are not. That is, I never value a student’s own discovery of a method over a good method purely because the student worked it out themselves.

      I know many teachers who would like to teach constructively, but end up teaching explicitly a lot of the time. I argue that to do so is basically a concession that constructive techniques don’t actually work in practice. In this sense you do see teachers mix constructivist and explicit techniques, but not because they are open-minded, but because they have to.

      The reverse is not true. Teachers who are comfortable with explicit techniques are generally not particularly tempted by constructivist ones.

      1. I agree. I am very comfortable with giving explicit instruction. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I believe that the ability to teach IS the ability to explain. Everyone has a story about some brilliant university prof who couldn’t actually share/explain the knowledge in a way that most students could understand. So being knowledgeable ALONE isn’t enough it’s having the ability to pass it on that makes a teacher a teacher, The constructivist approach is to “set up a scenario” where the students could/should/might figure things out. But then again, they might not. Or they might do so in a very ineffective way. Or they might reinforce misunderstandings which could fossilize and hold back further learning I have moved more and more away from group work–unless it is HIGHLY structured. It can be such a colossal waste of precious class time.

        It really does exacerbate the “achievement gap” for which we are constantly criticized. It does sometimes seem to be as if some malevolent force is trying to demand that we use bad techniques in order to then punish us for not accomplishing a goal which they knew wasn’t possible with those techniques.

        I also think that teachers too often want to blame family/home life/lack of support. While I certainly feel bad for students in bad situations and realize that it can certainly be an obstacle for some, I also know many such students that see school as their way out, their way to something better. A lot can be accomplished at school in spite of home life–if the time we have with them is used wisely…

      2. I agree the ability to explain is vital to teaching. Explicit explanation about assessment requirements even more so. I’m not sure that constructivism is just about setting up a scenario in my experience. Its more about the explanation followed by scaffolding then a scenario. I know some teachers still might say “explore 100”. But not many would say “explore the Bunsen burner”!
        There are no excuses for bad teaching and I agree some teachers use other factors as excuses. I don’t think think this is restricted to teachers who use constructivist approaches. They are just lazy!
        Thanks for the debate.

  3. What is so scary is that whole language reading instruction lives on even in England where we have had systematic synthetic phonics and the Simple View of Reading made statutory. Publishers persist with writing reading books for beginners based on repetitive and predictable texts even though they now throw some cumulative, decodable reading books into the mix. This perpetuates the notion that children need a range of multi-cueing word-guessing strategies – let’s face it, they can’t get through their early books without guessing many of the words. This is classic ‘mixed methods’ and not research-informed. The 3-year inquiry by NFER concluded teachers were looking still wedded to multi-cueing and Reading Recovery is alive and kicking in England for the weaker readers – the very children who are most damaged by asking to read books that they cannot, in effect, read without guessing. This is an issue for the whole teaching profession, not just infant teachers. The primary and secondary teachers have to pick up this mess.

    1. It’s quite ridiculous isn’t it. Good reason for teachers and leaders to keep up with latest research and then they can reject the resources that don’t reflect the contemporary practice.

    2. Reading Recovery is quite different from Whole Language, and it has an extensive research base demonstrating its effectiveness with young children having difficulty with reading. Reading Recovery has time for systematic and explicit teaching of phonics. Your post raises a lot of questions about the teaching of reading, but I wouldn’t want folks confusing RR for whole language.

      1. Thanks, Greg. I didn’t weight in on whether it was the most effective intervention we can provide to children. But, there is an extensive research base demonstrating its effectiveness. My bigger point is that it is not a whole language approach to teaching reading.

  4. So much rides on the use and interpretation of a few words here. Chester says “The point of Explicit Instruction is to never deliberately leave the child in a state of bewilderment or indecision”. But someone else is going to see that as failing to encourage curiosity or failing to have students make any decisions.
    My reading would be an explicit approach can start from the point of no bewilderment or indecision and take students to the point at which a student has to struggle with a decision and is curious about aspects of the subject. While constructivist approaches start from the other end and the complaint is they may leave students there in a state of bewilderment and indecision.

    For example after explicitly teaching enough arithmetic having students discover that finding the next prime gets increasingly difficult seems a perfectly good way to introduce some exploration on the part of students.

    If traditional arithmetic teachers do try to take students to the point where they are curious and want to explore questions like this then they should say so and make it clear how this is different from the constructivist approach. If they don’t then I think the constructivists have a point.

  5. Just a wee plea not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact that constructivism grew from a theory of learning into a theory of teaching (or the lack of it!), doesn’t mean there is no value in the notion that each of us constructs our own version of reality in response to our experiences. As a maths teacher using direct instruction in almost all my lessons, I found “what is their current understanding of this?” a useful question to ask myself as I work with students needing my help. And I found pupils more willing to express their misconceptions when I approached our conversations with a non-judgemental curiosity about what they were thinking. Maybe constructivist ideas are entirely unnecessary for such an approach, but they motivated me.

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