Chasing the constructivist rainbowPosted: March 3, 2017
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.