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.


Rob said...

Might give this a skim:

It's an article called Does No One Read Vygotsky's Words? I saw your post earlier in the day and then happened to come across it. Haven't read it, so I can't say more.

Instructivist said...


I greatly appreciate that scholarly article. It makes it a lot clearer how Vygotsky could have been appropriated by the constructivists. It takes a considerable amount of disingenuousness (ommissions and distortion and outright falsification) to shoehorn V. into the Deweyan mold.

Again, many thanks for this great find.

A similar mischaracterization and misrepresentation happened to the TIMSS study of math instruction in Japan.

Japanese math instruction has been erroneously portrayed as favoring so-called discovery learning. Alan Siegel, a professor of computer science at New York University, took a careful look at Japanese math instruction and finds that the underlying approach is direct instruction and repetitive practice.

Alan Siegel's study is available here

Also see a column by Linda Seebach describing the study.

Excerpt from Linda Seebach's column:

The Rocky Mountain News

"An illusory math reform; let's go to the videotape"
by Linda Seebach

August 7, 2004
American children come off badly in international comparisons of mathematics performance, and they do worse the longer they're in school.

One such comparison, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, tested more than 500,000 children in 41 countries, starting in 1995. As part of the study, researchers videotaped more than 200 eighth-grade math lessons.

These lessons have been studied intensively in an effort to figure out why Japanese students do so well in math while American students do so badly. Alan Siegel, a professor of computer science at New York University, has reviewed the videos and calls the teaching "masterful."

He also believes that many of the TIMSS studies contain "serious errors and misunderstandings." If you have doubts, he says on his Web site, "go review the tapes and check out the references. After all, that's what I did." ( His paper also appears in a recent volume of essays on testing published by the Hoover Institution, Testing Student Learning, Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness.

The eighth-grade geometry lesson Siegel discusses is based on the theorem that two triangles with the same base and the same altitude have the same area, and it is framed in nominally "real world" terms as a problem in figuring out how to straighten the boundary fence between two farmers' fields so that neither farmer loses any land. This is, of course, highly relevant to urban Japanese youngsters, who are likely to be called upon frequently to accomplish this task.

The teacher first primes the class by reminding them of the theorem, which they had studied the previous day. Then he playfully suggests with a pointer some ways to draw a new boundary, most of them amusingly wrong but a couple that are in fact the lines students will have to draw to solve the problem (though they aren't identified as such).

Then he gives the students a brief time, three minutes, to wrestle with the problem by themselves, and another few minutes for those who have figured out a solution based on his broad hints to present it. Then he explains the solution, and then he extends the explanation to a slightly more complex problem, and finally assigns yet another extension for homework.

As Siegel describes it, "The teacher-led study of all possible solutions masked direct instruction and repetitive practice in an interesting and enlightening problem space.

"Evidently, no student ever developed a new mathematical method or principle that differed from the technique introduced at the beginning of the lesson. In all, the teacher showed 10 times how to apply the method."

But that's not the way the lesson has been described in the literature. A 2000 commission report from the U.S. Department of Education, Before It's Too Late, gushes that in Japan, "teachers begin by presenting students with a mathematics problem employing principles they have not yet learned. They then work alone or in small groups to devise a solution. After a few minutes, students are called on to present their answers; the whole class works through the problems and solutions, uncovering the related mathematical concepts and reasoning."

How could Japanese children solve problems based on "principles they have not yet learned"? Why, in the same way that Meno's slave solved a mathematical problem on the exact same day that Socrates happened to be asking him questions.

As to how this confusion might arise, Siegel notes that a report by J.W. Stigler and others for the National Center for Education Statistics, The TIMSS Videotape Classroom Study, uses this very lesson as an example of how their data analysts were trained to identify solutions discovered by students.

"Altogether, this lesson is counted as having 10 student-generated alternative solution methods, even though it contains no student-discovered methods whatsoever," Siegel says.

Furthermore, the mathematicians who wrote about the study subsequently didn't see the original tapes; they relied on the misleading coding done by the data analysts.
Why does it matter? Because so-called "discovery learning" is the promised land of mathematics reform, and if only we follow the prophecies of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics across the River Jordan, all our failings and failures as a nation will vanish away. And we know the prophecies are true, because the Japanese have gone before us.

Only they haven't. This is teaching in the traditional mode, beautifully designed and superbly executed, but nothing like the parody of instruction that goes by the term "discovery learning" in math-reform circles in the United States.

Anonymous said...

I am absolutely no fan of constructivism, but the Siegel article strikes me as either really foolish or intentionally disingenuous. If you decide that a student generated method has to be: 1) developed by the student without hints from the teacher, 2) complete, 3) an alternative to a standard method, and 4) correct, then he is completely right. Is there anyone who would expect that? Perhaps that's why the TIMSS study (with a couple of exceptions in one 1999 paper that I could find) doesn't call them "Student Generated Alternative Methods" and doesn't code them this way.

One feature that seems to be common among countries that do well in mathematics, although implemented in different ways, is that students spend a good deal of time explaining why methods work or don't work. The Japanese style of mathematics instruction prominently features discussion of different ways of solving problems that students come up with, with varying degrees of scaffolding (to use a Vygotskian word) by the teacher. Often these are wrong and often the teacher needs to help the students develop these wrong ideas before helping students to debunk them.

I've been educating myself in the mathematics reform literature and I think it is completely wrong to say that "so-called 'discovery learning' is the promised land of mathematics reform." I'm sure there's someone who's called it that, but I note that there is no citation.

The modal American mathematics classrooms I've watched focus on teaching students procedures for solving problems, with little explanation (by either teachers or students) of why some approaches work and others do not. Whether or not students are generating the procedures, I suspect the key missing piece is understanding of *why* we should solve problems in a particular way.

Instructivist said...

"I am absolutely no fan of constructivism, but the Siegel article strikes me as either really foolish or intentionally disingenuous. If you decide that a student generated method has to be: 1) developed by the student without hints from the teacher, 2) complete, 3) an alternative to a standard method, and 4) correct, then he is completely right. Is there anyone who would expect that?"

I am somewhat puzzled by your comment. My understanding is that the students were first taught the standard algorithm before trying to figure out the problem. The misrepresentation critiqued by Siegel consists of the claim that they were not.

NYC Educator said...

I think a large problem is viewing something as complex as human learning in absolutes--it has to be like THIS, or like THAT, and all the time, with no variation whatsoever.

As a teacher, I think it's OK to take a break now and then, but to take it to preposterous extremes and declare, like Joel Klein has, that teachers should spend no more than 10 minutes giving lessons and the rest of the time the students should be learning from each other--well that's not reasonable by any standard, particularly to people familiar with American adolescent behavior.

I wonder why the people who come up with new ideas about education can't say "Here's something new. Let's try it," as opposed to "Here's something that renders everything else obsolete, and you must now do this exclusively, and absolutely nothing else of any kind."

Instructivist said...

Sorry for the word identification hurdle.

I had to institute this measure to thwart spammers who became increasingly more obnoxious.

"As a teacher, I think it's OK to take a break now and then, but to take it to preposterous extremes and declare, like Joel Klein has, that teachers should spend no more than 10 minutes giving lessons and the rest of the time the students should be learning from each other--well that's not reasonable by any standard, particularly to people familiar with American adolescent behavior."

Good point!

Teachers need to be flexible and adopt the mode that suits the occasion. The last thing teachers need is to have a rigid formula imposed on them.

You might want to do a mini lesson, then have guided practice, then a mini lesson again -- all within the same period.

The mode also depends on the subject being taught. For example, in math, modeling should be followed by guided practice. Then there might be a need for modeling again. I don't see how history can be taught wihtout a lot of explicit and interactive instruction. The B&K clowns make that impossible.

NYC Educator said...

I have a new one for you, I think. It seems that chalkboards are losing favor. When I first heard that, I was excited, because I thought it meant they were going to replace them with whiteboards and markers, on which even I can write legibly.

But no, apparently the chalkboard is a threatening figure which should be covered up, so as not to offend anyone. This is according to an acquaintance of mine who's employed by Joel Klein. I have not heard what, if any, action is to be taken against the offending graphite monstrosity.

Instructivist said...

You are so right about the vanishing chalkboard. I have been to many schools where the board was completely covered up with posters, notes and what have you.

One reason is the disparagement of explicit instruction and writing on the board, known pejoratively as "chalk and talk" (that rhyming again). Some teachers prefer an overhead projector for various reasons. One of them is that you can write something and keep an eye on the kiddies. With the board you have to turn your back on the pupils and that might create an opportunity for mischief.

NYC Educator said...

I guess it wasn't nearly as new to you as it was to me. This doesn't sound very nice, but IMHO, teachers who can't afford to turn their backs to their students are incompetent.

I had a bio teacher in high school who kept an overhead projector in the room. He placed page after page of notes on the wall, and we sat and copied. That was his sole activity in the classroom.

I bought a Barron's review book a week before the Regents, studied like hell, and passed. It was a miracle.

Instructivist said...


I cannot imagine covering up the board in my classroom. Especially in math, you want student participation. They need to come to the board and work out problems. The teacher is there to guide. Other students can be asked to pitch in.

Instructivist said...

Looking for the basic, organizing principle from which everything flows is crucial in order to achieve some clarity and attack the problem at the root.

Hostility to knowledge is right there at the core. Just read the pronouncements of leading progressive educationists like D. Snedden, S. Hall, Cubberley, W.H. Kilpatrick, H.O. Rugg (responsible for making history and geography disappear as distinct, named subjects and replacing them with the nebulous phrase "social studies) and their relentless, almost neurotic, assault on the academic curriculum in the first few decades of the last century. One of the results were the so-called Cardinal Principles of 1918 (that essentially banned academic subjects from schools).

But I think this hostility has received an additional boost (not that it needed that impetus) from the obscurantism and lunacy of postmodernism and critical pedagogy culminating in radical constructivism. Postmodernists deny the existence of objective reality and consequently there cannot be external, independent knowledge, let alone the imparting of such non-existent knowledge.

I therefore think that the distinction between run-of-the-mill constructivism (hostility to knowledge and to imparting knowledge, limited personal experience as the only legitimate source of knowledge) and radical constructivism (denial of objective reality) is important even if the former receives sustenance from the latter.

Anonymous said...

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 him 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 hermenutic 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!)

Anonymous said...

In response to your post on arrested development I felt that an explanation of what constructivism is may be of the most use. Constructivism like any theory or philosophy can be thought of as falling on a continuum. On one end there is radical constructivism which would be the philosophy that children will just naturally learn given the proper learning environment and that no direct teaching is required. On the more temperate end of constructivism is the thought that children need to be taught certain things and that the learners will than use this foundation to build more complex thoughts. Or if a text book definition suits your fancy than perhaps constructivism could be thought of as a perspective that suggests that learner create a body of knowledge from their experiences-knowledge that may or may not be an accurate representation of external reality (Ormrod, 2003). It is with the second part of the definition that you appear to take issue with and I would agree could be problematic.
I would argue that children in the early years of school can have plenty of false beliefs and it is important that a teacher give the student information to dispel these false beliefs. To leave a child to create all their own knowledge would be a mistake and I have not seen any evidence that would indicate that schools of education are advocating this. My current textbook on learning tells the reader that information needs taught in order to build on the student’s level of understanding (Bransford, 2000). However I would also argue that direct teaching may not necessarily convey the information intended by the teacher because such a practice ignores students’ experiences and preexisting knowledge. In contrast to constructivism, direct teaching leaves the teacher leaves the teacher ignorant of what the student is thinking because children are not given the opportunity to speak. Therefore preconceived notions held by the child never have an opportunity to be corrected. Now that a clearer understanding of what constructivism is has been created a discussion of its touted theorists may be in order.
Piaget would be a good place to start in that he would appear to have the least to do with formal education. It would seem that Piaget did indeed encourage learning in the natural environment and in so much as he focused on the learning that was naturally taking place with his theory. However the idea that Piaget never spoke of development beyond the sensorimotor stage is not true. The formal operational stage found in children age 11 and up is defined by the concept of understanding abstract concepts. In other words a learner that is in the sensorimotor stage thinks beyond themselves and that which is black and white. However I would agree that Piaget’s stages of Cognitive development are rather lacking when it comes to the teen age child. I would also agree that it seems that children are arrested in their development but not at the age of 2 such that you suggest but in adolescence. However one could argue that constructivism is taking these stages of development and adding to them to create deeper understanding.
Vygotsky is another matter entirely. His ideas of zone of proximal development seem not only to fit in with constructivism but give it the support it needs. In Vygotsky’s model a learner knows only so much and it is just beyond this firm grasp of knowledge that the educator should set the bar. In a group learning environment learners of similar ability can help each other in that they understand the areas in which a child of that age may be having problems. It is by knowing what a child is misunderstanding that we can help them understand it differently and thus reach this higher bench mark. With a model such as Vygotsky’s a teacher must know what the learner thinks they know and work with them from there.
I believe where one could get side tracked with the constructivist theory is when one reads the views of Von Glaserfeld. One could argue that Von Glaserfeld would belong to the radical constructivist camp. It would not be entirely accurate to attribute his views to all constructivists. Even in the most modern schools of education teachers are still being taught how to teach. If the philosophy was that students do not require the knowledge dissemination of teachers than teachers would no longer need to be educated. However again I would challenge the notion that he is entirely wrong. I would hate to think of myself as a robot mindlessly receiving information and storing it never questioning it or thinking on it further. If it were truly the case that a learner never constructs their own knowledge than we the human race would still be stuck in the dark ages. Inventions are not directly taught but the pieces that the learner needed to create them was. It is at this point that I again must depart from the constructivist camp and align myself with more traditional views.
There are some children for which constructivist teaching may not work. It does no good to pretend otherwise. Group work is not for everyone. For instance an above average child might grow bored waiting for the rest of the group to catch up to his/her level of enlightenment. Some students may be entirely motivated by grades and thinking beyond how to ace the test is not even on their radar. It is for these types of learners that constructivism may be like that pair of shoes that is really cute but really painful. However I would challenge anyone to find a method of teaching that challenges all students at their current level of mastery and encourages further comprehension. It would be more worthwhile to work with what we have to create the best learners than to argue that the current system stinks. Although, building on or constructing new ways of teaching would also be helpful.
In conclusion I would agree that constructivism is hard to define. Even in all the education text books I currently own approximately 3 pages are devoted to the topic. These three pages and one lecture I received appear to contradict your assertion that constructivism reigns supreme in schools of education. The reason that constructivism is not taught more or explained further might be because constructivism is not a way of teaching but a theory about how one learns. It was my sincere wish to enlighten you with this response and distil any worries you have about arrested development and to this end I hope I was successful.

Instructivist said...

Excerpt from the Fordham Institute's recent report on science standards. This excerpt illustrates the anti-book mentality of constructivists.

Educational Constructivism

Constructivism is not new. It was evident in the first draft
(1992) of the National Science Education Standards, where
it took the form of a claimed postmodern philosophy of science.
That, in turn, incorporates one kind of constructivism
(“social” constructivism) about knowledge, including scientific
knowledge.The adopted philosophy was an application
to learning standards of the increasingly popular educational
constructivism,whose main tenet is that learning happens
only by an individual’s action, his or her making and doing
things in the world, not as a result of any conveyance of
knowledge (as in teaching).10 A revision of that early draft
eliminated the praise of postmodernism but left in place the
notion that a learner can do no more than to construct
knowledge, which is therefore personal, from things and
events in his or her sensed environment. It is supposed to follow
from this that scientific knowledge cannot be transferred
from one person—a teacher (or from a book)—to
another. The learning expectations of standards should
therefore focus much more on process, the “doing”of science
by the student, and much less on its reputed facts.11

By the late 1990s, emphasis on process as opposed to
content was synergistic with various social pressures for
such pedagogy, eventually under the explicit banner of
constructivism. The slogans “depth instead of breadth”
and “less is more” became catchwords. Typical of that
stirring time, and not very different from materials now
appearing every day, were such exhortations as the following,
quoted from a series of papers entitled “Research
Matters—to the Science Teacher,” at the web site of the
National Association for Research on Science Teaching:

… The constructivist epistemology asserts that
the only tools available to the knower are the
senses. It is only through seeing, hearing, touching,
smelling, and tasting that an individual
interacts with the environment.With these messages
from the senses the individual builds a picture
of the world…. Therefore constructivism
asserts that knowledge resides in individuals;
that knowledge cannot be transferred intact
from the head of a teacher to the heads of students.
The student tries to make sense of what is
taught by trying to fit it with his/her experience….
‘Others’ are so important for constructivists
that cooperative learning is a primary
teaching strategy.... Thus, from a constructivist
perspective, science is not a search for truth....12

But as the physicist and science educator Alan Cromer
… Constructivism is a postmodern antiscience
philosophy that is based upon Piaget’s work on
how children construct concepts and conceptual
relations and on the philosophy of two early
nineteenth-century opponents of the Scientific
Revolution, Giambattista Vico and George
Berkeley.... It’s a form of subjective empiricism
that puts its emphasis on the thoughts of the
knower and views the search for truth as an illusion….
Such an ideology would be of no interest
to scientists and science educators were it
not, in effect, the official ideology of the reform
movements in the United States and elsewhere….
But when push comes to shove, no one
knows how students are to construct their own
theories of atoms and electrons, of stars and
galaxies, of DNA and genetics…” 13

The constructivist turn in K-12 science education is another
case of good ideas gone bad. The good ideas are certainly
there in the national models and are sometimes reflected in
the standards documents we studied for this report.
Inquiry now shares pride of place in science curriculum
with disciplinary science content. Recently and in some
places, the former has even begun to dominate the latter.

In 2000, the National Academy Press and the National
Research Council issued Inquiry and the National Science
Education Standards, a follow-up to the earlier standards
models. This volume was intended to illuminate and justify
the shift of emphasis. Central to its argument is a brief
survey of current research on “How Students Learn
Science.” 15 Explicit constructivist argument is (again)
absent. The stress, instead, is on research data bearing on
the attributes of scientific expertise and on the stages
through which children go in learning science.

As far as it goes, the account is even-handed. But it doesn’t
go far enough and is clearly a promotion of Inquiry
(or, to use an older and more limited catchphrase,“discovery
learning”) as the preferred pedagogy for K-12 science.
About the empirical support for Inquiry in science learning,
this account is not entirely satisfactory. First, from
research on the nature of expertise, which is indeed relevant
to learning as inquiry, the evidence reported is that
people who have it—the experts— “… have a deep foundation
of factual knowledge [emphasis added].”16 That is
nothing like a finding in favor of “less is more”!

Second, an up-or-down verdict on Inquiry-based science
learning is not yet available: meta-analyses of the
large and uneven literature yield no compelling conclusion.
17 What the meta-analyses do indicate is that
Inquiry—here, the processes of practical science—
ought not to be ignored in the design of standards and
curricula (with which principle every competent science
teacher must surely agree). To us the meta-analyses
indicate that more, and much better, research still needs
to be done. They do not confirm “less is more.”

Instructivist said...

I am posting this entry here because I fear it will be lost if the site goes away:

Monday, October 03, 2005
Teaching a lesson in a progressive school

Last week I taught my first student-teaching lesson. The teacher I work with collaborates with two others on her lesson plans, a special ed teacher and another 11th grade humanities teacher. They meet to plan lessons in the afternoons, and usually I'm at class then, so I don't get to input a lot. They are open to my suggestions, up to a point.

For example, the kids' writing is terrible. I mean scary terrible. One essay I just read was almost unintelligible, in that the students' words seemed to have been scattered randomly throughout the "sentence," which went on for like four lines and counted as a paragraph. The girl is bright and articulate, and to my knowledge does not have any type of learning disability.

I suggested I could do some mini grammar lessons in class, and my teacher thought it was a nice idea. She does support the idea of grammar, and recognizes that the kids are pretty weak writers. Although I don't think she has the same fear in her heart that I do for them. But the thing is, she won't let me give any grammar quizzes. The school as a whole is sort of "against" quizzes, although some teachers use them I guess. It's difficult to assess whether the kids have learned the specific principle you taught when you can't quiz them on it specifically. Also, there is every reason for the kids to tune out when I try to teach it to them, since they are not really accountable. But this is a small frustration only.

On Friday, I taught the whole lesson. It was about the Declaration of Independence and what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote, "all men are created equal." We read some of his ambivalent and conflicting views on slavery, and talked about what why he was so conflicted.

This is a really difficult topic because you have to closely examine the American situation at the time. Jefferson was so steeped in the politics of his time--the revolution, trying to maintain colonial unity, condemning slavery while assuring southerners of its preservation, a slaveowner himself, a man of thought in an age of events. He saw slavery, and saw its injustice. He saw how it contradicted with his ideals of equality for all men. So he changed the game by claiming that African-Americans were...not quite men. Sort of pseudo-men, perhaps evolutionarily stunted. It was his awful compromise between reality and idealism.

However, in class we hadn't talked about the revolution yet. We hadn't talked about the different ways that the northern and southern colonies developed and why. We hadn't talked about the fragility of the revolutionary will. We hadn't talked about northern attitudes toward slavery and toward Africans.

Why, then, did we do this lesson when we did?

Because although it is a history class, the class is based around themes, not history.

The themes for this unit (colonial founding through the early American period) are roughly as follows:
the racialization of savagery
race as a social construct
what freedom means to different peoples

It's difficult to find room in there for things like a) the development of the colonies, b) events leading to the revolution, c) ideas leading to the revolution, d) dissent regarding the revolution, e) the war itself.

I would imagine that the kids have had many classes based around themes like this. One girl said in class today, "how come we always have to learn about race?" Not that it isn't an important topic, especially in American history, but I think the sentiment stemmed from theme overload.

Another hint that they haven't really learned a great deal of content, in the past or so far this year, is that they don't know a lot of content. I'm pretty sure a lot of them don't know what "Europe" is, or at least the difference between "Europe" and "England." When I talk to them, they try to reconstruct the facts of history logically, from the themes we learned about.

My teachers and others want kids to understand the "big ideas" in history, rather than memorizing facts and details. But I just don't think you can teach these big ideas directly. They are empty and meaningless by themselves. You teach the small stories, the facts, the dates, the chronology, the events, and then out of these, patterns begin to emerge. That's the beautiful part, when the students start to see them. It's like giving them tree after tree after tree, and suddenly they realize it's a forest. Or it's like that painting, by...Seurat? The one with all the little dots. There is no picture without all the dots!

It's funny, because I feel that the teaching strategy I am suggesting is actually more constructivist than my constructivist teachers. It doesn't involve lots of group work, and it doesn't shun facts, and there would have to be a lot of teacher support and prodding, but I think students could come up with a lot of "big ideas" on their own, without us directly telling them. Giving them the facts, rather than a somewhat revisionist thematic interpretation of the facts, actually gives them more power, and a forest full of trees.

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.

posted by newoldschoolteacher @ 3:21 PM 28 comments

At October 03, 2005 5:29 PM, Portnoy's Complaint said...
This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At October 03, 2005 6:27 PM, Jenny D. said...
Awesome. You worked hard to teach that lesson. Wow.

Believe it or not, there are lots of us out here in Ed Schools who see the world as you do, and see education like you do. You'll run into plenty of loons, but there are very smart people trying to do things better too.

At October 03, 2005 7:54 PM, Math TA said...
I have to admit, I was kind of puzzled when I read this:

"It's difficult to find room in there for things like a) the development of the colonies, b) events leading to the revolution, c) ideas leading to the revolution, d) dissent regarding the revolution, e) the war itself," considering that "what freedom means" to various people is one of the key themes of the unit.

Of course, it's not a complete story, but freedom is one of the reasons people left Europe to colonize the "new" world. For some, it was political; for others, religious; for still others, it was economic freedom that caused them to set out across the ocean. It's no stretch to connect the other items in the list to the concept of freedom in one way or another, either.

Oh, and I just wanted to say that I was ecstatic to find someone in ed school somewhere who wasn't a radical constructivist. I teach math, and there you find one of the worst failures of constructivism. I mean, it's hardly realistic to expect our children to essentially teach themselves 2000 years worth of mathematics, modulo a dark age or two, all in the span of just over a decade? None but the most gifted could be expected to succeed; I have students who can't multiply 2-digit numbers without a calculator, for example.

Keep it up. I'm trying to do my part, too, by scientifically studying collegiate mathematics education and looking for ways to improve the way we teach. Finding this blog made my day. :D

At October 04, 2005 5:11 AM, Anonymous said...
I like the Seurat metaphor. You should put it into a really snappy four-word title and write a best-selling book.

At October 04, 2005 9:14 AM, newoldschoolteacher said...
To Math TA:

You're totally correct. The idea of freedom is very important for this period, and all periods, in American history. My point was that you don't teach a lesson called "the idea of freedom." You teach a lesson about "the actions of the British crown that made the colonists want to revolt." From this, the kids would be able to EXTRACT what freedom and liberty was to the colonists. Similarly, you can teach a lesson about the early wars between colonists and Native Americans, reading about the motivations on both sides. From this, your students could extract the meaning of freedom to those particular tribes. The idea is not to be too heavy-handed in teaching interpretations rather than facts. Thank you for your comment. I should try to slow down and be more even-handed. I'm becoming as reactionary as my adversary.

At October 04, 2005 9:57 AM, Jenny D. said...
I'm adding you to my blogroll as Newold Teacher. Or do you want Oh Snap?

let me know.

At October 04, 2005 10:02 AM, newoldschoolteacher said...
Jenny D--

I really haven't figured out this blog thing yet, so I don't know how to send you a message other than this way.

Anyway, most people have been listing it as newoldschoolteacher, but you can do whatever you want. It's no big deal.


At October 04, 2005 7:17 PM, Anonymous said...
I guess I'm not sure what you meant in your original post, then. If you wanted to cover, say, the formation of the colonies, wouldn't you then teach the lesson titled "formation of the colonies," and then expect the whole "what freedom means" concept to fall out on its own? Maybe I'm just betraying my lack of knowledge of what goes on inside ed schools.

If you mean that the kids are supposed to figure out "what freedom means" without you ever mentioning the word "freedom," then, I think that's ridiculous. History, in particular, is a subject in which there are lots of different directions one can go with the same material.

Consider medieval medical tests as a primary historical source, for example. Clearly, one can use this as a basis for the history of medical thought in the period. (I'm mentioning this because one of my undergrad professors used these as primary sources for a PhD dissertation.) One can also use it as a launching point for a study on attitudes toward women in the period, as becomes apparent after you read a couple of them. Chances are good that a surface reading of the texts, or any single text by itself, will not lead you to a theory of misogynism in medieval Europe. Either you already have to be thinking about these things, know where to look for them, or be guided to them.

At October 04, 2005 7:19 PM, Math TA said...
Whoops. I wrote that last comment. :P I meant to click "preview", not "publish!"

At October 04, 2005 9:21 PM, newoldschoolteacher said...

I removed your post because I don't believe in innate racial differences. Both science and experience have shown the concept to be false. If you wish to debate this topic, that's fine, but this particular blog is not the right forum.

Thank you.

At October 04, 2005 9:31 PM, newoldschoolteacher said...
math ta,

I think we agree here, but are misunderstanding one another. The idea is not to ignore concepts like "freedom," but instead to ground them in fact, so that they actually do mean something. It's the difference between studying all the Intolerable Acts, the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, and the quartering of soldiers, and reading Common Sense and THEN discussing/teaching what freedom meant to the colonists versus just discussing/teaching what freedom meant to the colonists without all that backup in real events and people.

At October 04, 2005 10:57 PM, Elliot said...
The experience you're describing isn't "progressive" -- it's a bastardization of progressivism that would have Dewey and Piaget cringing in the grave.

The idea of having the student construct his or her own knowledge and thereby deeply ingrain the concepts in such a way that they contribute to overall intellect is sound. But that requires that the student has the building blocks of that knowledge -- the facts, the chronology, etc.

There are two extremes, it seems, at the moment; One says you teach all "theme" and no detail, the other says you teach all detail and no theme. The most effective method seems to lie somewhere in the middle: Using details and facts as an avenue to critical understanding.

Your school isn't progressive by any accurate reading of the word, it's simply missing the mark altogether.

At October 05, 2005 7:40 AM, Anonymous said...
To the Administrator:

You brought up the subject of race, I am merely responding to it. (and will continue to do so).

The fact that you believe something to be false does not justify you from removing it from a discussion board, even from your own blog. As long as the post is not abusive, and is reasonably on point, its removal from consideration only serves to not allow other people to consider its validity and discuss it if they want to, which is how freedom of speech is supposed to operate. An idea can be right or wrong, it can be discussed or ignored, but to not allow others to see it is indicative of the kind of not-open-to-discussion closedmindedness that keeps beauracratic institutions from solving their problems, which of course, is part of the problem in our schools..... My guess is that you are uncomfortable with the idea of racial differences. But here are some links to the latest research on race (sorry, the links didn't make it through the cut and paste, but they are easily googled). What if someone on this board would like to read them? Are you going to deny them that opportunity?

2 Scholarly Articles Diverge on Role of Race in Medicine NYT, March 20, 2003

"A view widespread among many social scientists, endorsed in official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association, is that race is not a valid biological concept. But biologists, particularly the population geneticists who study genetic variation, have found that there is a structure in the human population. The structure is a family tree showing separate branches for Africans, Caucasians (Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent), East Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians.

Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease, NYT, July 30, 2002

"Challenging the widely held view that race is a 'biologically meaningless' concept, a leading population geneticist says that race is helpful for understanding ethnic differences in disease and response to drugs. The geneticist, Dr. Neil Risch of Stanford University, says that genetic differences have arisen among people living on different continents and that race, referring to geographically based ancestry, is a valid way of categorizing these differences."

A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race NYT, Oct 8, 2002

"Two physical anthropologists have reanalyzed data gathered by Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, and report that he erred in saying environment influenced human head shape. Boas's data, the two scientists say, show almost no such effect. The reanalysis bears on whether craniometrics, the measurement of skull shape, can validly identify ethnic origin…

" ‘I have used Boas's study to fight what I guess could be considered racist approaches to anthropology,’ said Dr. David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. ‘I have to say I am shocked at the findings.’

"Forensic anthropologists believe that by taking some 90 measurements of a skull they can correctly assign its owner's continent of origin - broadly speaking, its race, though many anthropologists prefer not to use that term - with 80 percent accuracy."
“Researchers at the University of Utah's anthropology department investigated a possible link between genetic illnesses and above-average intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews. They suggest both are the result of natural selection for enhanced brainpower.”

Brain May Still Be Evolving, Studies Hint


Two genes involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, researchers say, leading to the surprising suggestion that the brain is still undergoing rapid evolution.

A new allele arose about 37,000 years ago, although it could have appeared as early as 60,000 or as late as 14,000 years ago. About 70 percent of people in most European and East Asian populations carry this allele of the gene, but it is much rarer in most sub-Saharan Africans.

Study Finds Genetic Link Between Intelligence and Size of Some Regions of the Brain, NYT, November 5, 2001

"Lunging into the roiled waters of human intelligence and its heritability, brain scientists say they have found that the size of certain regions of the brain is under tight genetic control and that the larger these regions are the higher is intelligence."

Y Chromosome Bears Witness to Story of the Jewish Diaspora, NYT May 9, 2000

"With a new technique based on the male or Y chromosome, biologists have traced the diaspora of Jewish populations from the dispersals that began in 586 B.C. to the modern communities of Europe and the Middle East. The analysis provides genetic witness that these communities have, to a remarkable extent, retained their biological identity separate from their host populations, evidence of relatively little intermarriage or conversion into Judaism over the centuries."

For Sale: A DNA Test to Measure Racial Mix, NYT, October 1, 2002

"A company in Sarasota, Fla., is offering a DNA test that it says will measure customers' racial ancestry and their ancestral proportions if they are of mixed race."

Genome Mappers Navigate the Tricky Terrain of Race NYT, July 20, 2001

"Scientists planning the next phase of the human genome project are being forced to confront a treacherous issue: the genetic differences between human races."

Gene Study Identifies 5 Main Human Populations NYT, December 20, 2002

"Scientists studying the DNA of 52 human groups from around the world have concluded that people belong to five principal groups corresponding to the major geographical regions of the world: Africa, Europe, Asia, Melanesia and the Americas. The study, based on scans of the whole human genome, is the most thorough to look for patterns corresponding to major geographical regions. These regions broadly correspond with popular notions of race, the researchers said in interviews."

The Palette of Humankind NYT, December 24, 2002

"Humankind falls into five continental groups - broadly equivalent to the common conception of races - when a computer is asked to sort DNA data from people from

Charles Darwin’s the Descent of Man

"... the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other -- as in the texture of hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatization and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotions, but partly in their intellectual faculties."

When I say that there is no longer any serious scientific debate about whether racial differences exist, only the degree and kind of those differences, I mean it:

I'll say it again. The reason why facts are often ignored in favor of general concepts and themes is because the facts that are available to us don't always support the prevailing ideology. If facts contradict the ideology to which we are trying to indoctrinate our children, whether that ideology be creationism that flies in the face of evolutionary theory, or modern theories on race that fly in the face of evolutionary theory, then you essentially have to find a way to justify not teaching the facts.

The facts need to be on the table so that our children can consider the possibility that differences in behavior are not all neccearilly the result of culture or environment.

At October 05, 2005 9:09 PM, TangoMan said...
I agree with the writer of the lengthy comment about race. Further, newoldschoolteacher's comment:

Both science and experience have shown the concept to be false.

Is demonstrably false and I've a whole blog and 1,000s of academic papers backing up the claim.

If she doesn't believe in evolution I'd be very interested in reading any posts she cares to make for how Intelligent Design should be taught, for that seems to be the road that she's on - that Homo Sapiens has been immune to evolution, or that evolution stopped at the neck. Personally, I don't see a middle ground - one either believes in evolution or not. There's no such thing as a little bit pregant.

At October 06, 2005 5:18 AM, Instructivist said...
"The experience you're describing isn't "progressive" -- it's a bastardization of progressivism that would have Dewey and Piaget cringing in the grave."

This is fascinating!

It sounds like a rerun of the great Communist experiment.

Actually existing Communism is/was a horror. The original ideas are all said to have been good, but somehow the implementation never works.

At some point you have to ask yourself if it's solely faulty implementation or is there perchance something wrong with the original ideas themselves. Something that seems impossible to implement properly has at the very least little practical value. This much seems certain.

At October 06, 2005 5:42 AM, Norma said...
Good post. My children are 37 and 38 and I recall that one of the most frustrating things about thematic or project learning (usually in groups) as I observed when they were in grade school was that they knew no facts to use as a foundation. Call it souffle learning--looks pretty on the outside but there's just hot air on the inside. So if you're fighting this battle, it probably pre-dates your instructors and teaching colleagues.

To this day, I doubt that my kids could tell you which came first, WWII or Vietnam or Korea. They probably know WWI came before WWII, however.

At October 06, 2005 7:22 AM, Rag Time said...
Yo, TangoMan, appreciate the backup. See you back at the blog.

At October 07, 2005 10:21 PM, Instructivist said...
"My children are 37 and 38 and I recall that one of the most frustrating things about thematic or project learning (usually in groups) as I observed when they were in grade school was that they knew no facts to use as a foundation. Call it souffle learning--looks pretty on the outside but there's just hot air on the inside. So if you're fighting this battle, it probably pre-dates your instructors and teaching colleagues."

One of the fallacies of the progressive/constructivist ed creed is that one can do "critical thinking" without having something to think about. Educationists set up this bizarre false dichotomy between content and "critical thinking" and come out in favor of "critical thinking" at the expense of content. The two must go hand in hand.

You mention the project method. This method was made wildly popular in 1918 by William H. Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick was a disciple of Dewey at Columbia University' Teachers College and the most infuential and damaging figure ever in education. TC served as an incubator of the creed and its acolytes spread the gospel far and wide.

I highly recommend Left Back by education historian Diane Ravitch for an account of the bone-chilling one-hundred-year history of progressive education. The anti-intellectualism of the chief proponents of the creed is breath-taking.

For starters you may want to do a search on the Cardinal Principles.

At October 09, 2005 11:57 AM, particleman said...
Another underlying contradiction inherent in championing this teaching method as constructivist is that the knowledge comes pre-packaged and pre-constructed. The authors of the curriculum (who have learned about the topic through this or some other method) have gathered and analyzed the evidence and drawn a broad conclusion (i.e. the relevant "big idea"). It is through this lens that students are to learn the thoroughly pre-chewed material.
Of course, any choice of structure for a lesson involves some amount of pre-analysis by the author of the lesson. The structures inherent in the content (in this case probably some combination of chronology and geography), however, seem to be the most neutral with respect to the author's viewpoint. The author of the curriculum has his or her chance to contruct the "big ideas" from evidence he or she knows, why would a constructivist deny a student that same opportunity?

At October 11, 2005 2:38 PM, Dana Huff said...
I have to disagree with you all. It's his blog, and he can remove comments from anyone for any reason. You comment here because he allows it. You could easily use your own blog as a forum for your ideas.

That said, I was interested in this post because I teach the Declaration in American Literature. One activity I like to do with students is to let them pair up and read the Declaration from their text along with the rough draft of the Declaration, which can be found in lots of places online. They are often very surprised by the differences, not just in diction, but also the passage on slavery that was deleted. I'm not sure if that would work for what you were trying to do, but my students found it to be an interesting and enlightening activity.

At October 11, 2005 2:44 PM, Dana Huff said...
I'm sorry! I didn't read enough to realize your gender and made the classic blunder!

At October 12, 2005 9:40 AM, Kimberly said...
No wonder these types of "progressive" teachers hate standardized tests. We keep focusing on those damn trees - sometimes down to individual leaves - while they keep trying to convince students that seeing the forest as a whole is the only important goal.

At October 13, 2005 1:34 PM, simbiotic said...
I consider myself a progressive educator, and have used thematic approaches and project-based learning in my classrooms. That did not prevent me from teaching events, dates, chronology, etc. I think it is easier to organize units around chronology or country/region, but in trying to teach a couple hundred years of world history in one year, one still has to be very selective about the people and events that get covered. There does need to be some balance between giving students a common set of facts with which to enter adulthood and the skills with which to analyze both current and historical events. I expected my students to understand historiography and apply economic, political and social lenses to the "facts" of history. Finally, I think a lot educators look at project-based learning as an end in itself, rather than a means of assessing student's knowledge and skills. My projects were culminating assessments that required students to demonstrate what they knew and could do. While I did use pen and paper exams to gauge factual knowledge, and essays to assess understanding, I found projects were a good opportunity to see that information in action through activities such as research, debate and presentation. I did a thematic unit on revolution based on French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions. After studying each revolution we conducted mock trials of key players. After three sets of trials their understanding of social, political and economic context deepened, as did their logic and argumentation skills. These are also interesting opportunities for students with different skills sets and performance levels to demonstrate higher order thinking, e.g. a low level reader who can absorb key ideas through preparing witnesses for trial. I think the criticisms you make are not of progressive education, but of progressive educators who do not have deep content knowledge and/or pedagogical skills.

At November 24, 2005 5:57 PM, Wong Online PoKér Hu said...
That is the reason why teaching is more of a vocation. The challenges being presented everyday are tougher that people think. Teachers are subjected to problems encountered in all sides of the world. In tackling this, teachers must be able to realize that it is more than learning that they are trying to promote.

At January 07, 2006 4:14 AM, Jim said...
wow awesome you're doing a good job

At May 29, 2006 10:00 PM, Anonymous said...
Excelent post! i'm training to be an ESL teacher now, and one of my grad school teachers teaches us using constructivist pedagogy. Accck!! I sense this is all a bunch of lefty-brainwashing of future teachers. Your post has encouraged me to stick with it; you are so right to teach facts and stories and let the students notice the patterns. Duh.

On class breaks i talk to undergrad students, some fresh out of high-school. They tell me they've lost the will to question, because high-school teachers only reward "progressive" behavior. This is a bad sign, but if us newbie teachers or teachers-in-training cut-and-run then that could be worse for the next generation.

At May 07, 2007 6:03 AM, Anonymous said...
Even if I do agree that this school's "progressiveness" will leave these students bored and clueless (and I do), to blame it on constructivism misunderstands constructivism. Schema theory is about building understanding. No understanding is being built in this school. Dewey promoted experiential learning. Having a vague conversation about race is silly and next to pointless. A meaningful conversation about race in America on the other hand is most worthwhile. But that is not possible without a schema/ framework of understanding.
I am a non-grading progressive educator and I would be horrified by the school described.
That said, to suggest that progressive education is responsible for the ills of American education is just silly. It really has never been tried. Since the 30's, people have been arguing to go back to basics. If you argue that point, you would have to acknowledge that this has been the case at least since the early 80's. This is a generation of traditionalist/ teacher dominated education. Indeed, I would argue that progressive education in America has never been tried. Even if our teachers have constructivist ed. profs, when placed in schools they are assigned curricula to teach, handed textbooks, and are told to "cover" a certain era.
Don't conflate poor teaching with progressive education or constructivism.

a. mcd- phila.

At September 18, 2007 4:36 PM, Anna said...
I am an educator experiencing similarly conflicting attitudes towards progressivism, but I just want to comment that even though it is difficult to implement well, I still think that it is worth fighting for. I believe that attending progressive schools made me and my classmates the compassionate, thoughtful, intelligent, successful (if immodest) people that we are in spite of and BECAUSE of its flaws and thought-provoking contradictions. Even if I did not memorize many dates in school, I developed an insatiable hunger for knowledge that has been my driving force throughout life.

I regret none of it.

In addition, I wanted to briefly respond to the post regarding race. It is imperative to understand (and to teach children) that the social constructionism vs. essentialism debate is NOT to be confused with the nature vs. nurture debate. Something can have a biological basis AND be socially constructed. For example biological sex has a biological basis (genitalia, physicality) whereas gender (clothing, make-up, desires, behavior) is a total social construct. Similarly, race, families, motherhood/fatherhood, sexuality, criminality, mental illness, etc. all have biological bases (relevances or correlations) while simultaneously existing as complete social constructs.