Child-centred education is based on the constructivist theory of learning, according to which learners construct their own knowledge by analysing experience. For Marc Le Bris, this is a false theory, because the whole of humanity, not the individual child, constructs knowledge. The dominance of constructivism means that pupils will be, at best, autodidacts lacking the solidity of systematic learning.Educationists wrap their creed in positive adjectives. One of those adjectives is "active" and alternatives to their prescriptions must therefore be "passive" and bad. But they overlook that listening attentively and trying to understand is being active.
In Britain there is also a strong aversion to the transmission of knowledge. The idea that pupils must be 'active' and become 'independent learners', rather than depend on the teacher, is seldom questioned. An independent school head teacher recently asked me: 'We are often accused of spoon-feeding our pupils. How can we help them become independent learners?'
Rachel Boutonnet could have answered that question. A French primary school teacher with a master in philosophy, she kept a diary throughout her teacher training and her first year as a teacher, which she published in 2003. She rejects the idea that traditional teaching methods make pupils passive: 'I think it is impossible to learn in a passive way. If you have learnt something, you must have been active;...in order to listen, you must concentrate. What the speaker is saying, you must make your own. This often requires effort and will power.'
She also questions the belief that so-called active methods lead to pupils' autonomy: 'the fact that pupils are "in research mode" doesn't mean that they are active. Often...they just ape an activity. They go through the motions that the teacher has scripted for them. Intellectually speaking, they are passive.'
The constructivist method is not so much an alternative to previous teaching methods as an anti-method. Boutonnet captures well the destructive impulse behind it: 'by refusing to transmit knowledge, the teacher trainers nevertheless transmitted something. They could not avoid this, since they were in the position of teachers.... This something was the rejection of knowledge. In this, they were the experts.'