Constructivism Is Not Constructive
PARENT ALERT: YOU MAY NOT KNOW THE WORD (constructivism), BUT THIS IS THE GIMMICK NOW USED THROUGHOUT AMERICAN EDUCATION. IT IS USED IN ALL SUBJECTS AND FOR ALL AGES. MATH IS TAUGHT WITH IT, AND HISTORY, AND SCIENCE, AND EVERYTHING ELSE. YOU WILL BE TOLD THAT YOUR CHILDREN HAVE TO FIGURE OUT THINGS FOR THEMSELVES. REALLY??!! WOULD YOU "TEACH" YOUR CHILDREN TO COOK THIS WAY?? OR TO FISH?? OR TO WORK WITH POWER TOOLS?? HECK NO. CONSTRUCTIVISM GUARANTEES LESS LEARNING. IT'S THE ENEMY OF REAL TEACHING:
Constructivism is the sophistry now oozing into every classroom. The Education Establishment loves this thing precisely, I think, because it’s hard to understand but can be used to demand drastic changes in the school system.
Piaget had some theories about how children, when they learn something, “construct new knowledge” in their heads. Isn't that a fancy way of stating the obvious? But theorists jumped a mile from that to this: the only valid knowledge is what students construct for themselves, not that useless stuff which teachers used to teach.
Here’s where we are now. Schools tend to announce, “We’ve adopted a Constructivist approach,” as if that’s a good thing, as if all debate is over.
Teachers will now function as "facilitators." Their main activity will be asking students about their "prior knowledge" and staying out of the way. Students will be encouraged to invent/create/construct new knowledge.
Only knowledge constructed by students is acceptable.
How students will construct that 4+7=11, or that Paris is the capital of France, is hard to say. What's very clear is that the process of discovery and construction can take a long time.
Meanwhile, the knowledge that better teachers bring to the classroom is wasted.
My personal take is that Constructivism is yet another clever device for diminishing the amount of knowledge that any group of students will learn and master.
Here's a short graphic video to explain some of the problems:
Primer for Parents
Constructivism is said to be a great way to teach X, Y and Z. That’s the upside, maybe.
The downside is that Constructivism is a great way to make sure LITTLE ELSE gets taught beside X, Y and Z. That’s because Constructivism demands clever theatrical prods that will facilitate children in constructing each bit of new knowledge. Well, there are thousands of bits, about thousands of topics. You’ll need some extra years.
Of all the sophistries pushed into the schools, Constructivism may be the champ for pomposity, pretentiousness, and opacity.
Parents need to know about Constructivism. Coming soon to a school near you. Be afraid.
Teachers need to think about this thing, coming soon to change your professional life, probably for the worse. (Instead of teaching, you’ll be asking students about their prior knowledge, presumably minimal. You used to teach them. Now they teach you.)
The Big Picture
Here's a comment left by a parent on the YouTube video shown above:
----My daughter is being taught by this method in school. She is essentially asked to "guess" in math without having any of the basics required to add or subtract. Constructivism is DEADLY to young students!----
Isn't that crazy? Well, I think so. And you find the same nuttiness in reading, where children are also encouraged to guess. The pattern is one of accepting wrong answers as real answers. If the children try, if they mean well, if they can prepare a pretty portfolio, that's close enough. Close counts.
Constructivism fits into this pattern because it creates a theoretical structure where the process of discovery is more important than what is discovered. If children construct ANYTHING, that will be considered a victory. But it's guessing all over again.
Unreality is the theme song.
To give a picture of how far educators run with Constructivism, here are a half-dozen typical comments found on the internet, in no special order:
“The emphasis is on the learner as an active ‘maker of meanings’. The role of the teacher is to enter into a dialogue with the learner, trying to understand the meaning to that learner of the material to be learned, and to help her or him to refine their understanding...”
“Piaget's theory of constructivism states that learning begins from the inside of the child. Constructivism is a scientific theory that explains the nature of human knowledge. It is also the only known theory that explains children's construction of knowledge from birth to adolescence.”
“Basically, constructivism views that knowledge is not 'about' the world, but rather 'constitutive' of the world. Knowledge is not a fixed object, it is constructed by an individual through her own experience of that object.”
“Constructivism values developmentally-appropriate facilitator-supported learning that is initiated and directed by the learner. This is the path through which educators (facilitators) wish to approach students in constructing meaning of new concepts.”
“Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customized to the students' prior knowledge.”
“Constructivists argue that it is impractical for teachers to make all the current decisions and dump the information to students without involving students in the decision process and assessing students' abilities to construct knowledge.”
You might want to read some of that twice. It's almost poetry in a crazed sort of way.
Basically, it seems to me that so much of modern education is a kind of make-believe. The idea is to keep kids busy at what seems to be school work. But nobody learns much, and all the kids are kept in a fairly homogeneous group. Socialism, quite a lot. Education, not that much. And that's why you read all those scary reports about how high school graduates don't know even the simplest stuff. The people in charge of the public schools don't give a darn about that stuff. It's called knowledge.
The video below explains the importance of Foundational Knowledge. Think of this as the opposite pedagogy from Constructivism:
Knowledge Is Power
Constructing Something Maybe
Imagine you are going to a lecture on a topic you know nothing about. Let's say Medieval Japanese Art. You're all excited because the speaker is said to be an expert and you expect to learn a lot....
So the speaker says to you, "What do you know about Medieval Japanese Art?"
"Nothing. That's why I'm here."
"Aha. Well, what do you think of when you hear the phrase 'Medieval Japanese Art'?"
"Not much, except I'm curious about it."
"Please start telling me about Japanese Art. Or I've got things to do."
"We don't do it that way anymore. You have to construct your own knowledge about Japanese Art of the Medieval Period."
"I told you! I don't know anything."
"Let's consider the word 'Art.' What are you associations?"
"I know a guy named Art."
"How about Medieval? What does that make you think of?"
"Torture. Like now. You actually know anything about Japanese Medieval Art?"
"No, that's not part of the job description. I'm a facilitator."
"Just kidding! But I can't tell you. That would be imperialism, if you see what i mean."
"Not at all."
"I can't impose my views on you, the student."
"Oh, go ahead."
Speaker checks watch. "Whoops, not much time left." Looks at lady next to you. "And, you, what do you think about Japanese Art..."
Young students are typically like the person in the story. They don't know anything. They want to be told. They need facts and guidance. In fact, the more ignorant people are, the more they need to be told ASAP. It's college students and graduate students that you might let loose to construct some new knowledge. Constructivism, as it's often ideally described, sounds a lot like Oxford, where a wise old don facilitates your education!
But Constructivists want to put eighth-graders in this situation. And maybe third-graders. And the rest. Little kids will be expected to construct language and numbers.
Imagine the great lectures you went to, where an expert speaker took a room of people to a new level. Now imagine the same people without any leadership, free to pursue their own impulses. Perhaps a few would make similar progress. Collectivists like to pretend that everyone is part of that "few." But most people would probably just drift.
Bruce Deitrick Price
Bruce Deitrick Price (author) from Virginia Beach, Va. on November 03, 2015:
To Susan: thanks for your comment. Constructivism is just one of many weapons used to make sure that schools stop doing their job. Whole Word kills reading. Reform Math kills arithmetic. And then, if any little bits of learning are still taking place, they put a stop to that with Constructivism. Reduced down to its essential effect, Constructivism says to the teachers: thou shalt not teach.
Susan on November 03, 2015:
Is the only solution to remove our students from school since it seems most public schools are one this band wagon? Thank you for a great article. Been wondering what has been wrong with my childrens' schools for 16 years!!
Bruce Deitrick Price (author) from Virginia Beach, Va. on July 17, 2012:
I've just been reading and writing a lot about the uniquely brilliant John Saxon. His nemesis throughout his educational career was Reform Math, which was based on a constructive approach. Saxon Math always significantly outperformed Reform Math. That's because Saxon believed in teaching a subject incrementally, patiently, with what might be called a loving attention to details. The key thing in education is to create a feeling of victory, confidence, success. You only get that if you are actually learning something definite; and you know you have learned something. Reform Math obliterates that feeling of success. Constructivism obliterates that feeling of success. (To learn more about John Saxon, you can google "The Legend of John Saxon, Math Warrior.")
Dana on July 17, 2012:
Some people seem really ignorant of other perspectives and jump on hasty generalizations. This article just shows how biased and little you actually know of constructivist approach.
Constructivist or learner-centered teachers cannot even take your criticism seriously because you have not even carefully taken into consideration the implication of the pedagogy or where they were coming from.
Loopner on June 18, 2012:
This is the best article I've read on constructivism. I have been enlightened regarding this subject due to the awful curriculum, CSCOPE, being pushed down our throats here in TX. Keep up the good work. I will share this.
Ed on March 30, 2012:
That's exactly what Constructivism does. It treats ALL knowledge equally. In constructivism, there's no difference between 4+7 and medieval Japanese art. Neither can be taught. Both must be "constructed" by the learner. The irresponsible nonsense is Constructivism, not this article.
AB on March 19, 2012:
Wow. You just equated allowing a youngster to explore a concept like "4+7" with asking students to invent knowledge about medieval Japanese art. That's irresponsible nonsense.