Tuesday, 17 October 2006


Natalie Solent has a post up about the educational theory known as constructivism:

Re-naming it every ten years hasn't made it work. Read Joanne Jacobs linking to Ken DeRosa linking in turn to an article in Educational Psychologist magazine called Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark.
These three links all have worthwhile stuff to read in them, so I'm telling you to read all three. OK, I'm also admitting that I have only skim-read the paper itself - but I've always said that "Do as I say not as I do" has a lot more going for it as a teaching strategy than it is given credit for.
Anyway. It's been called discovery learning, experiential learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning and now (heaven help us) "constructivist instructional techniques".

I can tell Natalie that it has been called that for at least the last decade, since I trained as a primary teacher in England 6 years ago and it was well established then. It is high time a thoughtful criticism was made of it, and the article certainly gives some.

If you read the links you notice that a common thread in the discussions about it is constructivism's denial of the concept of reality, which is handed down to it from postmodern philosophy. This I found odd, because if they were challenged about their theories or methods, my tutors always replied in ways that indicated definite belief in some things being true, and valid, always and everywhere, and other things not (ie "shut up") - the true things were mainly theories, ethics, and so on (such as a certain view of multiculturalism, equal opportunities, politics). The things that were not really existing things were facts, you know, the little nuggets of information that teachers are commonly supposed to pass on to pupils (or "learners" as they have been renamed in all government material).

The reason there is no such thing as reality, we are told, is because we all "construct" our own reality. Leaving aside the clear contradiction in someone saying this to a group of people, and the group, by and large, understanding the person rather than all thinking they heard something completely different, like "the sky is a nice shade of pink this morning", I found it a sinister attempt to discredit learning, communication, culture and knowledge: you assume reality is imagination, then you set about moulding that imagination. All else is irrelevant or nonexistent.

As one of the arguments in one of Natalie's links shows, constructivists often turn to an absolutist view of reality and of knowledge as soon as they are challenged, which makes them hypocrites as well as underminers of education.

By way of a final whinge about it, I remember very few, if any, taught sessions on the PGCE which actually followed the constructivist ideal. Most were good old fashioned "chalk and talk" sessions, in which we made copious notes and then afterwards went and learnt the notes. We were rigorously assessed, our learning was not "scaffolded", some of our tutors were very harsh, and we all worked damn hard, often doing a day at school and then four or five hours work in the evening, which might be preparing an assignment, doing the reading, or just preparing more lessons.

And do you know, it worked....myself and some of my colleagues passed out with all A Grades...

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