Saturday, February 18, 2006

A different take on "constructivism"

A reader of this site called Allison left a comment on my piece on arrested development that I found fascinaning. She describes how Husserl of phenomenology fame views constructivism and authentic learning. I have to admit, though, that I had hitherto been unaware that educationists have ever heard of Husserl, let alone have sufficient knowledge of phenomenology to distort it to absurd lengths:

How sad that the constructivists in education misused the ideas from such wonderful philosophers as Husserl and Wittgenstein.

Husserl, in particular, was terrified that within a generation, all modern knowledge could be lost. From his perspective, we were standing on such a tower of shoulders of giants that we could fall due to some calamity (war, plague, etc.) and we couldn't even reconstruct the society we'd had before. So he set out to find the "Authentic description" for things--for concepts, ideas, words, traits, algorithms, experiences. He was trying to write down a body of knowledge as best as possible so that we wouldn't have to start over with a blank slate.

This idea of his led him to be one of the founders of phenomenology, a philosophy much maligned for many unfair reasons. Between Husserl and Heidegger, phenomenology came up with any explanation for learning called the Hermeneutic circle, which explains that constructivism is a necessary component for authentic learning.

But in the circle, all of the rote learning is a REQUIREMENT before the constructivist reaching BECOMES authentic.

Here's an example: At first, you don't know things like your times tables. You don't know 6 times 7 off the top of your head. You must inauthentically calculate it, say by adding 6 7s. You are unsure of your answer, maybe. (And you have yet to REALLY be convinced that adding 7 6s produces the same answer.) You have doubt still. Over time, though, you learn your times tables by rote (still inauthentically at first) because you are forced to. So now when asked, 6 times 7 is 42 AND 7 time s 6 is 42. You don't think about why; it's just the rule.

Eventually, you learn the tables so well that they become known to you, and you have no doubt that 6 times 7 is 42.

Now, you start working on another problem: 2 times 21. Now, this isn't in your times table. You have doubt; you are forced to try and discover something you DO know that helps you solve the problem. In doing so, you may learn something fascinating: that 2 times 21 is 2 times 3 times 7. This may be one of the first times that you've even NOTICED factors before. You finally, unsurely at first, guess that maybe 21 times 2 is 6 times 7, because 2 times 3 is 6.

But now, you're beginning to guess something FASCINATING: that factors are associative! This is still unsteady to you, so you fall back on the KNOWN, the rote: and you start examining other multiples: 3 times 14, for example. lo and behold, this is 3 times 2 times 7!

This is an example of the hermeneutic circle at work: every time you learn something inauthentically, it becomes the basis for a future authentic learning. All learning is predicated on prior learning--and ironically, predicated on "learning" in such a way that you even FORGOT that it was strange that you knew that fact, and yet, this time around, that fact you were convince of, leads you to an A-Ha! you never saw before.

And over time, you know these truths so deeply that you KNOW all numbers have prime factorizations; then at some later layer, you understand the beauty of diophantine equations because of what you've "always known" about prime factorizations, etc.

So the original constructivists, who were trying to get at authentic learning, which always involves moving into the unknown, understood that you must ALWAYS predicate that unknown on the known. (In fact, ask a phenomenologist what the bottom layer of that predication is, and he'll probably tell you something fascinating: the top!)


Allison said...

Well, I doubt nearly any of the educationists actually READ any Husserl, but I'm sure they've been told how great phenomenology is for inventing constructivism. They all have been told how great Foucault is, right? And they've all been told how great Piaget was, too. And before you think I'm a fanatic, like all branches of philosophy, phenomenology doesn't lead people to only good ideas. Lessee, here are some folks who claim to be phenomenologists: Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, and Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), so it's a wide variety of moral and political persuasions.

But the corruption of the original philosophers who studied learning to what educators are taught and understood is probably a lot like folks reading The Da Vinci Code who then talk about Da Vinci's art and Christianity instead of learning about art or reading the Bible, Augustine, Anselm, etc.

Again, the real issue with educationists is that they don't have any real domain knowledge in the first place, so they've spent decades justifying why that's appropriate for teaching. And nearly anyone who does have it quit teaching long ago.

Marie Killelea said...

People who can think are usually hungry for rote learning, but people with rote learning are often not inclined to think. We need both, but if some mad scientist came up to me and said I could only keep one or the other, I would choose to keep my thinking ability.

Dr. Stat said...


I wonder what you would think about. Since you would have no words, numbers, or logical structures...

I suppose you would think that you were hungry, and cry for someone to feed you...

Or that you were uncomfortable, and cry for someone to change you...

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

There are those of us who THINK about education, and we use our memorized owrds to do it, and we even read philosophers....

and some of us are still teaching, Allison.