Trying to pin down constructivism -- to see if it can be defined in a meaningful way and whether there is any sense that can be separated from nonsense -- is like searching for the unicorn.
At this point of my search, the best I can do is conclude that constructivists display a case of arrested development. Constructivists are stuck in the Piagetian sensorimotor or, at best, pre-operational stage. This infantilism that manifests itself in constructivists goes a long way in explaining educationist hostility to knowledge and educationist anti-intellectualism. But this infantilism is golden compared to the denial of objective reality by radical constructivist gurus like von Glaserfeld.
Let me elaborate a bit.
Constructivists cite Piaget and Vygotsky as their progenitors. Piaget did groundbreaking work on how toddlers develop intellectually and came up with different stages (really a continuum divided into stages to get a better handle on this development). For example, a toddler might recognize at some point that an object that is moved behind another object and disappears from sight does not cease to exist (permanence). Or a toddler might discover on his own that an object falls when released or that bumping into a wall is not a good idea or that a flame is hot.
The constructivists' fallacy is to carry this notion of discovery and individual experience to absurd lengths and apply it to later years -- to adolescence and even adulthood. Learning then becomes solely a matter of discovery and individual experience from which one constructs one's own knowledge and meaning. But you cannot "construct" broader knowledge ex nihilo and keep reinventing the wheel endlessly. You need external input. You need to benefit from the knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. This is where constructivism breaks down. Constructivism presents itself as a theory of learning based solely on experience. But personal experience is limited. Broader learning also needs to tap into an existing body of knowledge that constructivists disparage.
This otherwise imcomprehensible educationist hostility to knowledge and especially imparting knowledge becomes clearer when one considers the views of leading radical constructivist gurus like von Glaserfeld who seem to come straight out of the loony bin:
Von Glaserfeld is one of the leading apostles of radical constructivism. Radical constructivism rejects the traditional philosophical position of realism and adopts a relativist position. The traditional view of realism sees knowledge as a representation of an absolute reality - a world "out there" prior to having been experienced. The radical constructivists sees knowledge as "something that is personally constructed by individuals, in an active way, as they try to give meaning to socially accepted and shared notions." As von Glaserfeld himself says "knowledge is the result of an individual subject's constructive activity, not a commodity that somehow resides outside the knower and can be conveyed or distilled by diligent perception or linguistic communication"
This explains why educationists don't believe in an external body of academic knowledge that should be communicated to students. It explains why teachers are not allowed to teach, i.e. give explicit instruction.
On the other hand, how constructivists can claim Vygotsky as one of their own still remains a mystery to me. His notions of the zone of proximal development and scaffolding are sensible and don't rule out explicit instruction (despised by constructivists). His emphasis on socio-cultural factors doesn't fit in with "constructing one's own knowledge" either.
I wish someone could explain all these mysteries to me.
UPDATE #1: In the meantime, reader Rob has helpfully directed me to a scholarly article called Does No One Read Vygotsky’s Words? Commentary on Glassman that exposes attempts to Deweyize Vygotsky through omissions, distortions and inventions.
From the abstract:
In the May 2001 issue of Educational Researcher, Michael Glassman proposed several commonalities in the thinking of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. However, in addition to general problems in the article (misstatements about scholars’ writings and a reliance on unsupported inferences), the discussion misconstrues major concepts and topics addressed by Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development—psychological tools, the role of the cross-cultural study, the zone of proximal development, and the nature of conceptual thinking. In addition, Glassman attempted to force Vygotsky’s goals into a Deweyan framework. The result is a misportrayal of Vygotsky’s work.UPDATE #2: I dug out my ed psych text (Anita Woolfolk) we used in grad school to see what it says about Piaget and constructivism. From it I learn that knowledge is "constructed by transforming, organizing, and reorganizing previous knowledge. Knowledge is not a mirror of the external world, even though experience influences thinking and thinking influences knowledge. Exploration and discovery are more important than teaching." The quote is Woolfolk speaking and giving a summary of Piaget's purported views under the heading "Assumptions about Learning and Knowledge."
Woolfolk goes on to helpfully explain how knowledge is constructed citing Moshman (1982). Knowledge construction is directed by internal processes like Piaget's organization, assimilation and accommodation. This means that new knowledge is "abstracted from old knowledge." It turns out that "[k]nowledge is not a mirror of reality, but rather an abstraction that grows and develops with cognitivie activity. Knowledge is not true or false; it just grows more internally consistent and organized with development."
Talk about being self-referential. Where is the external input?
I don't know what to make of this. I can understand that we might have to readjust our thinking when we learn new things that might conflict with or supplement our previous knowledge. But apparently there is no input of new knowledge from an external source. Saying that knowledge is constructed by transforming, organizing, and reorganizing previous knowledge is purely self-referential. Previous knowledge is simply remixed and stirred the way you might mix the ingredients of a cake. Nothing new is added. How relevant is all this to teaching reading and writing skills, math, science, history, geography, literature or languages?
Neither relevant nor helpful. It's all nonsense -- nonsense on stilts that has managed to become the dominant creed of the ed establishment. Constructivism is to education what creationism is to science. Both lack an empirical basis and rely on some unfathomable, ineffable, magical, supernatural thing said to "construct" something out of nothing.
How refreshing, then, to have someone like Prof. Plum rip the mask off this pretentious drivel:
What is Constructivism?What does progressive/constructivist education actually look like in practice. Here we have a smartly written account from someone who is experiencing it first hand:
Constructivism is big word that makes education perfessers think they are intelligent.
Constructivism is an invention that makes education perfessers think they know something that everyone else doesn't.
Constructivism is a set of statements about learning that are quite simpleminded and generally false.
"Knowledge can't be transmitted from one person to another. 'Learners' have to construct knowledge." [This very statement shows that constructivists don't believe what they say. Isn't the statement an effort to transmit knowledge?]
"Therefore, teachers should not teach directly by telling or showing (e.g., how to solve math problems). Instead, they should guide students as STUDENTS figure out concepts (what granite is) and strategies (how to sound out words, how to solve math problems)." [Constructing knowledge means NOTHING more than comparing and contrasting, identifying sameness and difference, making inductions and deductions. This is all OLD news. There is NO reason why teachers can't teach in a direct and focused fashion. In fact, students "construct knowledge" (figure things out) better--faster and with fewer errors--when they ARE taught directly, rather than expected to "discover" knowledge--which makes no sense, anyway. If knowledge is constructed, what IS there to discover?]
"How each person constructs knowledge is unique. Therefore, teachers should not arrange instruction in sequences. Instead, students should select learning tasks. Don't worry. They will select what they are ready for." [Unique in the DETAILS but not in the general logical operations by which human beings learn. If each person is unique, I guess physicians should not take their blood pressure.]
"Drill (distributed practice) is bad. It is boring. It is not needed." [Baloney!]
"Tasks should be 'authentic.' Holistic. Teach the fundamentals of chemistry in the CONTEXT of chemistry experiments. Teach phonics skills in the context of reading." [This is the prescription for keeping kids ignorant and unskilled and for leaving them demoralized.]
"Since each student's learning is unique and INTERNAL, you cannot use quantitative and standardized methods of assessment. It should be qualitative--how students feel and think about what they are learning." [This makes no sense. Body temperature is also "internal," but you can measure it quantitatively and with a standard instrument. Likewise, you can easily count how many math problems kids do correctly. This is a cop-out to protect constructivists from data that would ruin them.]
And from this set of sophomoric beliefs, you get whole language, fuzziest math, inquiry science, literature without literacy, and history without moral and political lessons.
Constructivist "theory" is a mishmash of overlapping platitudes and absurdities--"empty words and poetic metaphors" (Aristotle, Metaphysics). Taken separately, constructivist "propositions" are merely simpleminded. Taken together, they are indistinguishable from the verbal behavior of a person suffering from chronic schizophrenia.
"Reality is a construction."
"Knowledge is a construction."
"Experience is a construction."
"Experience is constructed with constructs."
"Constructs are constructed out of experience."
"Reality is knowledge."
"Knowledge is reality."
"Experience is reality."
"There is no knowable reality external to the knowing subject (the constructor)."
"Individuals and groups construct meaning as they interact with environments."
"Therefore, no statement can be more than relatively true."
"A current body of knowledge ('reality') is a context that shapes the construction of knowledge."
"Therefore, environment, knowledge, experience, meaning and reality are the same thing."
In my lesson during the first block, we read a lot of the primary source documents out loud together, and then I led a discussion about them and we took notes together. This was roundly condemned as the wrong approach, and so the next period I had to let them read and interpret in groups. As usual, they wasted a lot of time and I don't really think they understood it. Not that I'm sure they had totally understood it in the first block, since they didn't have the proper historical background and I can't give them quizzes, but at least I got some reasonable answers out of the class discussion. In the second block, everyone got something different, depending on their group. It was so frustrating. I don't want to learn to teach like this because I don't think it's right. But I can't contradict the teacher. But I need the practice. It's an education grad school moral dilemma. The best kind.This is just the last paragraph of a fairly long post. Read the whole thing.
UPDATE #3: Here are more sources on constructivism:
What is Constructivism?These prescriptions would explain the surfeit of math cripples. I know from my own experience teaching math that students thrive when having things explained to them combined with guided practice and independent homework in the form of distributed practice and overlearning.
"Students need to construct their own understanding of each mathematical concept, so that the primary role of teaching is not to lecture, explain, or otherwise attempt to 'transfer' mathematical knowledge, but to create situations for students that will foster their making the necessary mental constructions. A critical aspect of the approach is a decomposition of each mathematical concept into developmental steps following a Piagetian theory of knowledge based on observation of, and interviews with, students as they attempt to learn a concept." [Emphasis added].
- Calculus, Concepts, Computers, and Cooperative Learning (C4L)