Saturday, May 19, 2007

Soliciting ed guru advice

I need advice from constructivist ed gurus.

Over and over, I run into this bit of "insight" from constructivists: "Knowledge is constructed by the learner from experience." First, I was beaten over the head with this "insight" in ed school. Now I see it at constructivist sites like this one.

What does it mean? How does it work in practice?

I tried to put it to the test. I decided I want to know something about Tang and Song China. According to constructivists, I need to construct that knowledge from experience. What should I do? I don't have any experience with Tang and Song China. I live now, not in the era of Tang and Song China. Then I hit on a brilliant idea: time travel. I tried cranking up that rusty, old time machine. It didn't work. Now I am trying to construct without experience but with the help of a hat. I am trying to pull the knowledge out of a hat. Ain't working either. I guess I'll just settle for a book and ignore the constructivist piffle.

My conclusion is that either constructivists keep repeating the same nonsense (probably due to a lack of critical thinking ability), or there is something I am not getting. I suspect the former.

Ed guru advice welcome.

On the same site I find this gem:

Radical constructivists do not advocate goals, sequential instruction, aids to learning, or restrictions on content for learners because each learner is unique and educators do not know what the learners need or want to learn.
I've got news for these "educators": In my experience, a lot of "learners" don't know what they need either. As for wanting to learn: Forget it!


Barry Garelick said...

Well said!

Exo said...

Love your posts!
I agree - well said!

Rainbow said...

I would also agree if student were not provided some structure to transition them into this form of learning. At some point in every learner's experience they begin to recognize relationships among concepts in seemingly diverse ideas. As this thinking builds, a knowledge-builder emerges. Students at the K-12 levels may learn to become knowledge-builders through appropriate learning experiences. In my writings, I have tried to show one way to build this awareness. Two pieces, titled "Constructivist Approaches to Teaching and Learning," and
"Knowledge Building" may help explain my ideas. The address is

Dickey45 said...

Crawford and others put together Understanding US History. I accidentally stumbled across it then I took a class from Crawford on how to teach it. Using Direct Instruction methodologies, students are given a lecture with structure/framework like categorizing or relating information. Then they use to the text and get into groups to relate the information. But they end up learning to write their own essays.

I never liked history but this certainly makes the information more interesting and connected. I love my history books (finally).

Canadian Postage said...

I kind of like what Rainbow said about this, where after an individually determined length of time, the student is able to make their own connections based on the experiences they have had - this gives me the impression that once the student is able to make these connections they will be able to learn through direct instruction or source material without having to travel to Tang and Song China.

I suppose if you wanted to give your students the Tang and Song Chinese experience, the teacher would have to do the research the old fashioned way, and immerse the students in the results of his or her research. But in this case, who has done the most learning? The teacher, who has built the environment, or the student, who has merely walked through it for a day (or worse, one class period)?

Dickey45 said...

But they are expecting kindergarteners, first graders, second graders, etc. to be building their own connections. This is where the education system falls down and is geared towards kids from more advantaged homes that have parents that give them the vocabulary, vacations, and home learning to build on.

What about the other 40-60% of the kids that don't get those things? Do we just throw them to the curb? Some advocate for just that. They say that schools should concentrate on the "gifted." I say let the gifted get a little extra but concentrate on the 40-60% to ensure they have necessary skills (and thus self esteem) to do better in society.

Constructing knowledge doesn't work for all kids. Direct Instruction CAN work for all kids if done in a fun way by teachers that don't try to undermine it. I'm not saying DI should be used by all but I think it can be effective for all kids.

Instructivist said...

"This is where the education system falls down and is geared towards kids from more advantaged homes that have parents that give them the vocabulary, vacations, and home learning to build on."

You seem to be arguing that children from intellectually more stimulating homes can do a lot of learning on their own, which appears to be your interpretation of constructing one's own knowledge.

I am sure it helps a lot to have a good background, but is this what ed gurus mean by "constructing one's own knowledge?" What is unexplained is how one can "construct" knowledge about, say, history from experience wihout having to read a book.

Barry Garelick said...

Seems to me the radical constructivists (who are misinterpreting the term "constructing knowledge" which is given specific meaning different than theirs by the psychological community) violate their own philosophy by reading books and articles that push forward the mistaken ideas to keep themselves misinformed.

NYC Math Teacher said...

I have yet to see the student who can discover on his or her own how to add fractions with unlike denominators. I can (and do) show them with circles how 1/2 + 1/2 is 1 whole and 1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4. Nevertheless, beyond those easy to illustrate relationships, students default to simply adding the numerators and denominators in all cases.

In other words, my students (even the top ones) are in need of explicit instruction and guidance. They need specific procedures (dare I say algorithms?). They can play with fraction pieces all day long, but eventually we need to get down to brass tacks.

Instructivist said...

"I have yet to see the student who can discover on his or her own how to add fractions with unlike denominators."

It's more likely that Godot will appear than to find students who discovered on their own how to add fractions with unlike denominators. Even under the best of circumstances (i.e. receptive students, good explanations, explicit instruction...) it's like pulling teeth.

I found that a good way to transition is to practice LCM and comparison of fractions.

NYC Math Teacher said...

Indeed. LCM (and GCF) always precedes fractions in my classroom.

Tracy said...

I wonder how many constructivists would like to volunteer themselves to have their hearts stopped so that trainee lifeguards can construct methods of CPR from experience.

Radical constructivists would of course be doing this in the knowledge that the trainee lifeguards would not be given any goals (like "get the patient breathing again"), instruction, or aids to learning.

Allison said...

I think constuctivists are misled by thinking that all learning is similar to how infants learn to speak. this seems to be their model--that infants keep randomly trying syllables, until they finally "construct" their own grammar and speech. infants seem to construct intuition about basic in-the-worldness and physics, too-- things fall down, water is wet, locomotion happens by exerting force. this is then analogized to how people intellectually understand subjects, as if that's how they can learn.

Assume for the moment that our brains are hard wired to construct grammars and vocabulary out of experience like this. there is no equivalent in out brain for math, history, or dozens of other subjects.

Note too that grammar, vocabulary, and written words are around us constantly, so that the opportunity to practice these skills is almost ubiquitous. What looks like "experience" might be "constant examples". There is also no equivalent surrounding by numeric operations. You can work to invent and create math-games from the world, but they aren't as natural in our society as reading and speaking. So even if constructivism worked for teaching math, there's almost never enough examples of math anywhere to get to that point. An hour a day just isn't even close enough.

Mr. Jones said...

my comment is in this link

Instructivist said...

mr. jones,

I read your comments which I reproduce below.

One can make all sorts of wonderful claims in the abstract. What I am looking for are highly detailed descriptions with specifics of how this is actually supposed to work in practice. I want highly detailed descriptions of how specific topics are learned in the various subject areas. You talk about their understanding, but where is the input of what they are supposedly understanding?

Here are your comments:

Per your request, I do believe in some constructivist priciples and can shed some light as to their manifestation in the classroom. You have to be careful when speaking with radicals, because as with a radical in any genre they will lead you to believe things happen magically. Teaching through constructivist methods is an extremely difficult task. It is, however, very rewarding and successful as well. One thing you do have to remember is, your lesson schedule will depend on how quickly the students learn, or construct their knowledge.

For the method I found most helpful.

5 steps

engage is to get the students interested. There is no problem or real thinking here. You need to get them thinking about things they already know about. Choose things that will connect to your lesson. approx 5-10 min

experiement is you giving them a mini project to do without actually teaching them about the topic. You do give them instructions. Some students will not like this. Encourage them to continue. this is a tool to help them gain there own understanding and for you to be looking for misconceptions your students might have about the topic. Log their misconceptions so you can address them later. 35-40 min
Journaling is encourages here.

After the experiment is your time to teach. now is the time for you to commence board work and getting students involved in what they already have participated in. However, they may not have used scholarly language or correct terminology when solving previous problems in the experiment. Now is the time to correct that. 20-35 min

Now you experiment again, with much more difficult problems.

Then get ready to assess.

Of course this can be changed in anyway...You can find more of this method on the internet although I do not have a specific address for you at the moment. Emails will be welcome if more info is needed.

P.S. keep your lessons engaging and purposeful, this takes time to plan...its not easy

Instructivist said...


"I think constuctivists are misled by thinking that all learning is similar to how infants learn to speak."

That is also my impression. Constructivists are stuck in the infant stage and extrapolate to all learning from that. I called this arrested developemnt in a piece I wrote by that name. Here it is again:

Saturday, October 08, 2005
Arrested development

Constructivism reigns supreme in ed schools. It is the unquestioned doctrine that guides all aspects of teacher preparation. It should therefore be of some interest to find out what it is all about, if there is an empirical core that can be discerned from the thick fog that envelops hapless teacher candidates. The prospects are not good. Von Glaserfeld calls constructivism "a vast and woolly area in contemporary psychology, epistemology, and education."

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?

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."
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:

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?

"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)
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.

Mr. Jones said...


You make an excellent point. Details are needed as far as instruction is concerned. Too many times we leave out significant deatails that keep our lessons from reaching our students.

I do not have tons of time to respond today, but I would like to give you a scenario using a math lesson I taught a while back.

I was on the Pythagorean Theorem in the lesson plan.

When planning the first thing I want to do is plan according to the strategy I pointed out before.

What will be my engage?
What will be my Experiements? and so on...

I also want to predict how students will react to this strategy or method of teaching. It is hard for me to get into students heads sometimes. Generational changes are vary from year to year, but this (even if wrong at times) helps you keep the lessons interesting.

As for in classroom action:

I show the class a movie clip on baseball. I ask them various questions about what they know abouty the sport. I let them talk for a while with me as the mediator.
This will not work for every class. My students were big sports fans this particular year.

I then asked them various questions about aspects of the game. Who the best player was, etc.

After about 10 minutes I posed the question for the day.

If a high school 3rd baseman wanted to know the distance from 3rd base to 1st base without measuring, How would he do it?

This question is not for answering now.

Next they will participate in an activity which requires them to prove the theorem. They will not know they are doing this yet. The activity is a right triangle with a square on the base and side. The students job is to fit the 2 squares combined on the hypotenuse.

You should not tell them any math terms regarding the theorem as of yet, unless they are common in class discussion already.

With this you are allowing students to participate in proving the theorem. They are doing this with their own actions, and without a lecture from you, which they do not participate in (aside from taking notes - which most students do not do). This activity will help them gain an understanding of the theorem and how it works through their own vocabulary, theor own experience.

For example, we do algebra in our heads almost everyday. We just do not write it down on paper. Trying to find varibles in grocery stores to get correct pricing and discounts. People who never took an algebra class are also able to do this. To teach them algebra, you do not teach them from Rome(transpose, variable) when they are in Carthage(find the price, how much is the discount). You must teach from Carthage on the way to Rome, if that made any sense at

OK after the experiement is your time to commence traditional teaching, while listening to the students thoughts on the subject matter. At this time you want to say things like, can anyone tell me what the square on the base of the triangle represented. if they cannot tell you fill them in on the math terms. they know there was a square there. People confuse teacher mediation with non-teaching, we stilll want to teach, but we want to put students in a situation to use their brains and make connections.
An example of this is figuring out that fax is short for facsimile and so forth...Students are able to make the same connections...they know some parts of the world, just not all parts, and it is also true with us.

I have to go.....There is obviously more...but we can keep in touch to discuss this further.