Sunday, March 04, 2007

Educationist misconceptions

Good discussion at KTM II on constructivism. ("Constructivism attacks the immune system that saves us from silliness")

I even managed to deliver myself of an opinion that then accidentally turned into a brief statement of my teaching philosophy:

I cannot understand for the life of me how construction and discovery can be compatible. If knowledge is just lying around the kitchen table or on the floor to be discovered, then why does it need to be constructed? If it is to be constructed, why does it need to be discovered?

I can understand construction in the banal sense that we must somehow integrate external input (from observations, books, sage on the stage, etc.) into our knowledge apparatus, but the external input must still be there. This type of integration is necessarily always active, contrary to educationist palaver. So-called "constructivists" militate against this external input and disparage textbooks, explicit and expository instruction, etc. [All based on a misconception of constructivism. See below.]

My own favored teaching/learning model is one I dubbed the Optimal Electrode Gap model [spark gap might be better], or OEG model (somehow I feel I must turn this into an acronym. Acronyms lend legitimacy even to screwball ideas. Not that I consider the OEG model to be a screwball idea).

The analogy is taken from physics. When relatively high voltage is applied to electrodes, three things can occur depending on the electrode gap:

a) no sparks fly if the electrodes are too far apart

b) a short-circuit is created if the electrodes touch each other

and c) sparks begin flying if the gap is just right.

This technical bit lends itself beautifully as an analogy and even metaphor for education where it has major implications for teaching and learning. The flying sparks are a metaphor for true learning and understanding. The electrode gap stands for the kind of pupil/teacher interaction. Finding the right gap is at the heart of a teacher's teaching ability and skill.

If a teacher talks above the head of the pupil without connecting with the pupil's prior knowledge, then the gap is set too wide and no sparks fly. If the teacher tells the student (who may not be paying attention as is most often the case) everything without allowing for creative tension and some student struggle, then we have a short-circuit (the electrodes touch each other) and the voltage is for nought.

On the other hand, finding the right gap prevents pupil frustration on the one hand and wasted energy on the other, and can lead to student excitement and enthusiasm, and a real sense of accomplishment. [I presume Vygotsky's zone of proximal development is something along those lines, but note below how educationists manage to turn a good idea into an absurdity].

This is my teaching philosophy in a nutshell. I am not sure how all of this ties in with prevailing theories, but I suspect it incorporates elements from a variety of philosophies.
In the Comments section of the post, Barry Garelick cites a quote that addresses one of the major misconceptions under which educationists are laboring, namely that the constructing pupil needs no external input:

I was referring to a paper by Anderson, Reder and Simon called "Radical Constructivism and Cognitive Psychology" which appeared in a collection published by Brookings Institute in 1998. In the paper, they state:

“A consensus exists within cognitive psychology that people do not record experience passively but interpret new information with the help of prior knowledge and experience. The term “constructivism” is used in this sense in psychology, and we have been appropriately referred to as constructivists (in this sense) by mathematics educators. However, (AND THIS IS A BIG ‘HOWEVER’ FOLKS) denying that information is recorded passively does not imply that students must discover their knowledge by themselves without explicit instruction, as claimed by radical constructivists. In modern cognitive theories, all acquisition of knowledge, whether by instruction or discover, requires active interpretation by the learner. The processing of instruction can be elaborate, its extent growing with the amount of relevant knowledge the learner brings to the task.”
Catherine Johnson of KTM I and KTM II fame contributes a terrific quote that further elaborates on this enormously damaging and widespread educationist misconception:

A common misconception regarding 'constructivist' theories of knowing (that existing knowledge is used to build new knowledge) is that teachers should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This perspective confuses a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowing. Constructivists assume that all knowledge is constructed from previous knowledge, irrespective of how one is taught (e.g., Cobb, 1940)--even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.
Barry Garelick points out that my spark gap analogy fits in nicely with Vygotsky's ZPD:

Yes, the spark gap analogy is quite good. It fits in with the Vygotsky theory of Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD. You want to teach children in that zone (i.e., the spark gap is not too wide) and provide the scaffolding or guidance to help bridge that gap.
BeckyC cautions that constructivists go off the deep end when it comes to defining the pivotal term "scaffolding". Scaffolds are usually high up next to a building and I am speculating that educationists begin to suffer from a case of vertigo when they are on a scaffold and fall off. How else to explain this educationist fall into the abyss of absurdity?

It's in trying to define what constitutes scaffolding that the constructivist mischief begins again in earnest.

Constructivists deny the possibility of scaffolding by directly instructing or directly telling the child how to bridge the gap between what he knows and what we know he could know next. They allow indirect methods only, and they are even uncomfortable with presuming to know what the child should know next. They wait patiently, and they wait and wait. After all, it's not their child, and the child goes away at the end of the school year.
Let's hope that through repeated exposure one or the other educationist will come to recognize the terrible misconception under which they have been laboring.


Anonymous said...

This is a bit snarky, but ...

Aren't (radical) constructivists hypocites? If all knowledge really is passive, and cannot be learned or disseminated by direct instruction, textbook, and so forth, then of what use can papers in favor of radical constructivism be? If ideas cannot be taught or related except passively, wouldn't that include the ideas behind their theory itself?

- Pedantic Peasant

Diana Senechal said...

Pedantic Peasant has hit upon a true contradiction. In my experience, die-hard constructivists seem intent on teaching their views and principles explicitly to others. Ironically, the group activities that they set up as illustration are a form of "drill and kill." The marriage of constructivism and top-down mandate is perturbing; what sort of children will they raise?

Anonymous said...

Vygotsky is what came to my mind as well.

Anonymous said...

Vygotsky is what came to my mind as well.