When I started blogging eight years ago, constructivism was a big deal. Whenever I wrote about it, which was often, plenty of people would appear and tell me that I didn’t understand it. So I even went to the lengths of creating a FAQ post to address the points they made. Yet now, constructivism seems to have faded. It seems to be mentioned less in academic papers and far less in the blogosphere. So what happened, which side, if any, won and what lessons can he take from this?
Constructivism is a theory of learning that comes in a variety of flavours, from radical constructivism to cognitive constructivism. What they all have in common is the idea that learners are not blank slates – that new knowledge does not simply accumulate in the mind but has to slot in to the old knowledge that is already there in some way. One way we may look at this is through schema theory. Knowledge is organised in the mind in the form of schemas – think concept maps – and new knowledge is either added to the relevant schema or, in some circumstances, changes the schema. Although there is debate about exactly what takes place and how, schema theory remains a well-accepted concept within cognitive science and educational psychology. If true, constructivism is the way we learn, whatever teaching method is used.
However, constructivism doesn’t end there, in what Richard Mayer has described as the ‘constructivist teaching fallacy’, many have drawn implications for how we should teach from the theory of constructivism, designing constructivist teaching methods. These are thought to go with the grain of how we learn and therefore be more effective. The idea that knowledge is constructed in the mind is interpreted as a need for learners to construct their own knowledge in the classroom through approaches such as inquiry learning that involve specific kinds of behavioural activity.
If you see a similarity to the methods proposed by late nineteenth and early twentieth century progressivists such as Herbert Spencer, William Heard Kilpatrick and the impenetrable John Dewey, this is, I believe, no coincidence. Those people who are drawn to the older ideas are drawn to constructivism. It’s less a case of people being persuaded by the logic of constructivism and more that constructivism provides a scientific framework and therefore justification for pre-existing preferences.
And that’s its weakness. Ideas are not scientific because they are true – that’s a common misconception. A idea or model is scientific because it is testable. And we can test constructivism, more or less.
Probably the biggest test was the late twentieth century experiment with whole language reading instruction. An analysis of this is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that asking small children to construct their own knowledge of letter-sound relationships has been found to be less effective than explicitly teaching them. See, for example, the 2000 U.S. reading panel report.
Nevertheless, like a teenager at a party whose date is kissing someone else, constructivism hung around in the kitchen for far too long. It’s usefulness, it seems, had not yet been spent. So, what happened next?
There was a slow move away from constructivism among cutting-edge educational psychology researchers. I would say this started with the 2006 publication of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s paper that outlined theoretical problems with, and empirical failings of, the model. This was met with a lot of sound and fury at the time, the echoes of which stretched well into the 2010s. There were three rebuttals published in the same journal followed by a response from the original authors. There was a debate organised at the American Educational Research Association conference in 2007. This was followed by a 2009 book in which both sides of the debate were given the opportunity to air their views. In his concluding comments, Sigmund Tobias, one of the editors, summarised his own thoughts on constructivism:
A careful reading and re-reading of all the chapters in this book, and the related literature, has indicated to me that there is stimulating rhetoric for the constructivist position, but relatively little research supporting it.
From then on, constructivism was living on borrowed time as the gradual shift away from it in the research community worked its way out into the wider educational ecosystem where constructivism probably still survives in some dark corners.
But remember that the teaching practices associated with constructivism preceded their constructivist justification and they will undoubtedly outlive it. At the moment, they are looking for a new host. For instance, the identity politics movement will perhaps be used to label explicit teaching as upholding white supremacy or something. However, the inherent absurdity and deep unpopularity of identity politics, coupled with the damage it does to genuine attempts to tackle intolerance and injustice, lead me to think its days are numbered.
Researchers seem to be rallying around self-regulated learning theory. This is a neat trick. If you define the issue as one about the most effective ways for learners to teach themselves new knowledge then you can draw on a whole lot of valid research. We can teach learners about retrieval practice, spaced practice and so on. The question of why we want learners to teach themselves new knowledge, when we have schools and universities and lots of people within them who are employed to teach knowledge to them, remains unaddressed.
Research interest in self-regulated learning theory is probably what’s behind the UK Education Endowment Foundation’s drive to promote ‘meta-cognition and self-regulated learning’. In that case, we have another motte-and-bailey argument where, under the banner of meta-cognition and self-regulation, all manner of curious agendas are advanced such as Philosophy for Children but, when questioned on this, proponents can retreat into arguments about teaching students how to use retrieval practice.
So, we are not done. Constructivism may have fallen for now and the battle may be won. But the war goes on.