Separating the Baby from the Bathwater: Constructivism

Beyond, obviously, school experience placements, I have been preparing for beginning ITT in September the only way I know how: reading. Currently, I am reading An Introduction to the Study of Education (3rd edition) edited by David Matheson. I have just finished Chapter 3: ‘Theories of Learning: Constructive Experience’ by Reg Dennick.

This chapter focuses on theories of learning which are generally to be found on the more “progressive” side of the education debate: constructivism, Experiential Learning and Humanistic Theory. All these could be described as “student-led” approaches, particularly the latter two, advocating for “teacher as facilitator” and eschewing didactic teaching. I have got the strong impression from many of the bloggers I follow that constructivism is contrary to a research-informed teaching method.

However, it seems to me that there are plenty of aspects of constructivism which align comfortably with the more “traditional” model of teaching. Obviously, constructivism hasn’t been entirely dismissed: Vygotsky, who developed his ideas from those of Piaget, gave us the Zone of Proximal Development and the concept of scaffolding, which seem to be supported by research evidence.

So what else can we take from constructivism?

(N.B. I am new to educational theory and my knowledge is far from comprehensive: if you read anything below that you disagree with or that you think has been misunderstood, I would love to have a further discussion about it or be directed to further reading.)

The basis of constructivist education is that it begins with knowledge the learner already has and builds upon it. Dennick quotes Ausubel (1968): “The most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach accordingly” (p. 46). Dennick comments that this makes constructivism “essentially a learner-centred approach beginning with the needs of the learners rather than the prescriptions of teachers” (p.46-7). But why does the approach have to choose either “the needs of the learners” or “the prescriptions of teachers”? Cannot teachers prescribe content according to the needs of the learners? Isn’t this what scaffolding demands?

How can a teacher effectively scaffold work for a pupil if they do not know what the pupil’s current level of knowledge or understanding is? In my view, ascertaining what the learner already knows does not mean allowing pupils to decide what they want to learn and study, but rather to map their current level onto a predetermined curriculum so that the teacher can effectively develop a scheme of work to allow the pupil to reach the necessary level by the end of the year. If a child can’t count, you won’t be able to teach them to add. But that just means you need to teach them to count first, not that you should dismiss numeracy altogether.

Starting a unit with a task to ascertain prior knowledge can serve two roles. As well as identifying what students don’t know, they must also retrieve what they do already know on the subject, helping to embed it in their long-term memory and allowing them to link it to the new material.

Ausubel also highlights the importance of unlearning misconceptions; Dennick states that “[t]he good […] teacher finds out what the misconceptions are and devises experiential and logical challenges to help build correct conceptions” (p. 46). How can a teacher correct misconceptions without knowing what misconceptions are already held, and how will they know what misconceptions are already held without ascertaining learners’ current knowledge?

Furthermore, devising “experiential and logical challenges” does not necessarily demand inquiry or project-based learning. Dennick suggests that “students should be given specifically designed problems or scenarios” to work through, but listening to a teacher’s explanation or watching a demonstration are also sensory experiences. In fact, Dennick explicitly points out that learning from the modelling of others can be seen as a constructivist approach. The developing mind may well be a “hypothesis-testing machine” (p. 44), but we are perfectly capable of discarding incorrect hypotheses based on the results of others’ experiments. Surely that is the point of education: to teach what others have discovered before us so that we don’t all have to go through the lengthy process of figuring out the laws of motion or reinventing the proverbial wheel. Humankind would struggle to make progress if each of us had to start again from the beginning. It is far more expeditious to brief children in what we already know and let them carry on from there than to ask them to try to figure it out themselves because that’s how we did it the first time around.

Dennick then makes the contentious point that because skills are developed “[b]y means of social interaction and the use of language” (p. 51), group work and oral tasks are necessary for learning. However, language use can be practised and developed through writing as well as speaking, and surely social interaction includes answering questions (both open and closed) asked by the teacher. These tasks are much more easily evaluated by the teacher and avoid much of the danger of veering off-task that is prevalent in group work.

Dennick also calls for the “relevance of learning […] to be brought out” (p. 51), although the relevance to what (life? other learning?) is not specified. This can obviously be taken as a need for learning to be relevant to a learner’s life outside of school, but could just as easily be taken as pointing out the necessity for related concepts to be explicitly linked to allow pupils to develop effective schemas, as Clare Sealy recommends as part of her 3D curriculum (paragraph 16).

Then there is the “active learning” argument. It is easy to see why learning inquiry-based problem-solving is considered active while listening to teacher talk is considered passive. But Dennick acknowledges that “active learning” includes the “activation of prior learning by means of questioning” (p. 52) which to me sounds a lot like the research-backed retrieval practice. Pupils “should be learning by doing, applying knowledge and problem-solving” (p.52). Note that they are applying knowledge, not discovering it. The knowledge has already been presented to them – by a “sage on the stage”, perhaps. The knowledge acquisition occurs before the problem-solving, it is not acquired as a result of the problem-solving. Even Piaget agrees here: in the logical operational stage of development, “[p]roblems are solved by deliberate investigation involving an awareness of all the factors that might influence the result” (p. 44, emphasis mine). The problem-solving is only useful after the knowledge has been acquired, which again matches up with the evidence-supported expertise reversal effect.

In short, any engagement with the material – including note-taking, answering teacher questions, indeed actively listening to teacher talk – is active learning and are likely to be more useful to learners than discovery learning.

Finally, Dennick states that constructivist teachers must “[g]ive learners responsibility for their learning” (p.52), which definitely could be interpreted as an advocation of student-led education, but seems more like a statement of the obvious to me. At the end of the day, teachers can’t learn on their students’ behalf: only students can make sure they’re paying attention during lessons and completing the tasks given to them. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be presented with the information through didactic instruction. It’s still up to them what they do with it.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that constructivism as a theory isn’t necessarily “wrong” so much as – like many theories – open to interpretation. And above is my interpretation of how constructivist ideas can support and be supported by evidence-backed teaching methods.

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