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34: The Con in Constructivism

Constructivism has been ubiquitous for decades;
educators can hardly write a grant proposal
without using this trendy term.
But what does it mean?

the con in constructionism

The constructivist concept seems to be contained inside a short phrase: CONSTRUCT NEW KNOWLEDGE, as in, “Students shouldn’t be focused on acquiring information or submitting to other people’s ideas; education should be concerned with constructing new knowledge.” I’ve seen a hundred such formulations. Finally, one really wants to know, is that saying anything? Nothing? What exactly?

It does sound wonderful, doesn’t it? Create new knowledge! That’s what Einstein did, right? And exactly that, according to many modern educators, is what children do all day in the classroom, as teachers--guides at their sides--facilitate an explosion of brand new knowledge. The process was spelled out brilliantly by Piaget and Vygotsky, geniuses both.

Hmmm. So many grandiose claims, so much smugness. I was suspicious that constructivism might be another giant flying sophistry performing whatever tricks an educator wishes. Frankly, however, I found it difficult to dismantle this thing, to deconstruct its core. The reason, I finally realized, is that the three words-- CONSTRUCT NEW KNOWLEDGE--work magically well together, like the perfectly fitting pieces of a Japanese puzzle box. This phrase insists on being experienced in toto. Every time you read it, you’re inclined to murmur, “It sure does sound wonderful...” But you’re still not sure what it means.

So let’s bear down on these words one at a time.


This is one of our most prestigious words. DaVinci, Galileo, Archimedes, those guys dealt in knowledge. We love knowledge! Simply to edit this word to “information” brings the hype down a few notches. You want to construct new information? Okay, if you insist.

2) CONSTRUCT. We build, assemble, model, memorize, learn or, if you like, construct the new stuff in our heads. But a sleight of hand occurs when theorists let “construct” suggest something more grandiose, namely, “create” or “invent.” Creating and inventing are humanity’s highest mental feats. It’s a stretch to insinuate that a child’s every mundane mental activity is tantamount to composing a poem or devising a theory.

3) NEW. Strangely, it’s this little word that is the biggest liar of the three, and that makes the whole sophistry work. Children are learning new stuff every day--how to cross the street, how to identify a type of vehicle, what a cloud is, what a word means. Fine. But in what sense is any of this “new”? It’s new in the child’s own brain, of course. It is most definitely NOT new in the world, having occurred trillions of time before. Where the constructivists lie is when they foster the impression that children are making something new in the world, something original and unique and precious.


Here is where this sophistry goes: constructivists argue that for children to truly learn that 2+3 equals 5 or that Paris is the capital of France, it’s necessary for children to construct this “new” knowledge for themselves. If you just, for example, explain something to them, that’s not authentic. If they simply memorize that 9 times 9 is 81, that doesn’t count. No, they must reinvent numbers, math, and this or that bit of knowledge, otherwise their education is an empty fraud. In summary, educators bring in constructivism so they can describe learning as happening in one particular way, and then insist that nothing else is learning. Naturally, they have to change the schools all around to make sure that only the correct kind of learning occurs.



To give a picture of how far educators run with this flimsy thing,
here are a dozen typical comments found on the internet, in no special order:


“The emphasis is on the learner as an active ‘maker of meanings’. The role of the teacher is to enter into a dialogue with the learner, trying to understand the meaning to that learner of the material to be learned, and to help her or him to refine their understanding...”

“Piaget's theory of constructivism states that learning begins from the inside of the child. Constructivism is a scientific theory that explains the nature of human knowledge. It is also the only known theory that explains children's construction of knowledge from birth to adolescence.”

“Basically, constructivism views that knowledge is not 'about' the world, but rather 'constitutive' of the world. Knowledge is not a fixed object, it is constructed by an individual through her own experience of that object.”

“Constructivism values developmentally-appropriate facilitator-supported learning that is initiated and directed by the learner. This is the path through which educators (facilitators) wish to approach students in constructing meaning of new concepts.”

“Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customized to the students' prior knowledge.”

“Constructivists argue that it is impractical for teachers to make all the current decisions and dump the information to students without involving students in the decision process and assessing students' abilities to construct knowledge.”

“This dramatic change of role implies that a facilitator needs to display a totally different set of skills than a teacher. A teacher tells, a facilitator asks; a teacher lectures from the front, a facilitator supports from the back; a teacher gives answers according to a set curriculum, a facilitator provides guidelines and creates the environment for the learner to arrive at his or her own conclusions; a teacher mostly gives a monologue, a facilitator is in continuous dialogue with the learners.”

“Focus on knowledge construction, not reproduction; present authentic tasks (contextualizing rather than abstracting instruction); provide real-world, case-based learning environments, rather than pre-determined instructional sequences; foster reflective practice; enable context-and content dependent knowledge construction...”

‘The implications of such a view for education are trifold: 1. teaching is
always indirect. Kids don’t just take in what’s being said. Instead, they interpret what they hear in the light of their own knowledge and experience. They transform the input. 2. the transmission model, or conduit metaphor, of human communication won’t do...”

“Constructivism describes how learning should happen, regardless of whether learners are using their experiences to understand a lecture or attempting to design a model airplane. In both cases, the theory of constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge.”

“Social constructivism encourages the learner to arrive at his or her own version of the truth, influenced by his or her background, culture or embedded is thus important to take into account the background and culture of the learner throughout the learning process, as this background also helps to shape the knowledge and truth that the learner creates, discovers and attains in the learning process.”

“Constructivism requires 1. sensitivity toward and attentiveness to the learner's previous constructions; 2. diagnostic teaching attempting to remedy learner errors and misconceptions; 3. attention to metacognition and strategic self-regulation by learners...”



I wanted to list a surfeit of quotes, in case you haven’t run into constructivism before. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, how sweeping the demands are: everything old must go, ideas, books, structures, everything! Teachers must be retrained, classrooms rearranged, schools redesigned. All on the basis, I believe, of tweaking the customary meaning of three words.

Finally, so much of 20th century education seems to be perfect storms of frail theory, robust sophistry, and gaudy jargon. More learning is always promised, even as the final result seems always to be less learning. Look at what happens in this case: the entire educational process is definitely going to be slowed down. Teachers can no longer teach--they must facilitate, i.e., interact with each student individually, which is simply not possible without hundreds of additional hours. Classes will slow down as facilitators wait endlessly for every child to come up with their “new” version of everything in life. At every turn, teachers are expected to be familiar with each student’s “prior knowledge”--imagine the amount of labor entailed in that one requirement. Worse of all, you just know that children will never be asked to learn all those thousands of basic facts they need to move on up the academic ladder. The whole point of constructivism, in fact, seems to be to put traditional fact-based education on hold, while everyone busily and ostentatiously plays at “constructing new knowledge.” And that is the con in constructivism.

Here’s the constructivist creed: all children, if only you will not teach them anything, are little DaVinci’s, churning out bold new truths. Don’t wreck this beautiful geysering genius with your silly old suffocating schools.

Think about how this would work in practice. A teacher might want to say: “This bridge is a mile long. 10,000 cars go over it every day. It’s a steel bridge that contains more than a million rivets....” Now, as a practical matter, that’s about four little chunks of knowledge. How in the world would you get children to construct those chunks for themselves?  If you state the facts, you’ve already destroyed the constructivist process. If you don’t state the facts, the children will probably never learn them. Multiply times many dozens of similar scenarios each day.

In constructivism you have an all-purpose alibi for skipping the boring basics. That’s not real learning, don’t you see? Children should concentrate on devising their own personal versions of what used to be called facts. It can sound wonderful. Kids skip all the tiresome little details, and just jump in the pilot’s seat and fly.

Indeed, constructivism reminds me of another popular sophistry: higher level thinking (or critical thinking). These are activities that children who know nothing are supposed to engage in. Note the common elements of swift promotion and make-believe. Kids who don’t know what war is, or what Russia is, or who Hitler was, or when 1941 was, will be invited to reflect upon World War II. You can imagine the profundity of the comments. Similarly, children who know little about numbers will be invited to construct “new knowledge” about arithmetic.

Modern educators always get things backward, because they don’t want to bother with the nuisance of learning basic facts, of mastering foundational knowledge, of crawling before walking. Here’s a disturbing question; are these educators just permissive and indulgent in a Rousseauvian way? Or is their goal more sinister--dumbing down whenever possible? And is constructivism just another gimmick for making sure that each generation of students is more ignorant than the one before?



So, is there anything of substance here? Only the obvious things that everybody always knew. For example, children might learn about X in a book. Better, they observe X in person. Still better, they do X themselves. Even better, they do X several times or in competition or with changing obstacles. Obviously, there’s a hierarchy here. Each successive level of engagement results in deeper, richer, more permanent memories. And what else is “learning” but memories? So of course we want to have learning by doing, the more the better. Active involvement is usually better than a boring lecture. Is there somebody somewhere who does not know this? Did all of Piaget’s theoretical formulations add to the common sense understanding?

Here’s another way of appreciating how crazy our educators can become. Researchers rhapsodized on the internet about an English teacher who divided her class into five sections and told each one to create a puppet show based on one of Hamlet’s acts, using contemporary language if they liked. This approach was hailed as what teachers can achieve if they’ll give their souls to constructivism. I like this idea. It’s clever; it’s creative.  Maybe it’s good that some weird theory could shake up this teacher’s technique. But was theory essential? Why does anyone need to muck up a pleasant day with the jargon of  constructivism? Couldn’t any eager teacher come up with this? Even a century ago. Constructivism doesn’t concoct this idea. A creative teacher concocts it.

Indeed, it’s this sort of cleverness that ed schools should be teaching. Not because it’s based on some theoretical fad but because, at the end of the day, it will increase learning! That’s all that matters. Have these kids learned more about Shakespeare this way than by a lecture or watching a performance? Or is there some still more ingenious way?

At the end of the day, do they know more--that’s THE question. If the teacher wants to dress up as a penguin and jump off the roof, all I want to know is whether this approach works. Do the kids feel they learned more?

Constructivism, like astrology, aroma therapy, feng shui, Buddhist prayer wheels, and Pythagorean theorems, could on a given day spark some juicy new idea. I’m glad of it. But my suspicion is that constructivism typically keeps a class in first gear. There’s something dense and unfriendly about the jargon. Something a little demented and totalitarian in the insistence that everything must be learned according to a certain formula or sequence. When was that ever the truth?

Finally, there is the matter of helpfulness or appropriateness. Some things belong in Philosophy Departments. That human consciousness and human mistakes may shape what we describe as real--sure, that's always been a slant that philosophers love to debate. But constructivists want to use all these what-if's as pretext for disrupting and dismantling what children will learn in elementary school. Constructivism is not constructive.

Here’s one more quote from the internet. I like this one especially because the writer sounds so crazed. Indeed, this little quote is worth savoring--it’s almost a perfect description of insanity:  "In fact, for the social constructivist, reality is not something that we can discover because it does not pre-exist prior to our social invention of it. Kukla (2000) argues that reality is constructed by our own activities and that people, together as members of a society, invent the properties of the world.”

I’m reminded of a poem I wrote years ago. The narrator is a patient at a mental institution, now roaming the grounds. Here’s how it starts:


birds circle
according to my desire
the wind whispers
what I wish to hear
leaves lift and sigh
as I walk by

I am the emperor...




"9: Philosophy Weeps" deals with five major sophistries that are common on campus. "22: On Bulls*t & Sophistry" deals with a famous book, and states that the book missed a great opportunity. "30: The War Against Reading" explains one of the world's great sophistries, known as Look-Say or Whole Word. 


The two most popular sophistries of the last 50 years are complements: DECONSTRUCTION and CONSTRUCTIVISM. 

Each is an attempted coup d'etat, accomplished not with guns but with words. Each is intended to let the user control reality.

DECONSTRUCTION (just a fancy way of saying DESTROY) lets you get rid of what you don't like. CONSTRUCTIVISIM lets you create what you do like and ignore all else. 

How convenient!

The pretentiousness and what might be called semantic desperation of these things should tell you a lot about the people who resort to them.

"New New Math"

Constructivism is practically the starting point for all of the nonsense that goes by the name of Reform Math or "New New Math." The recurring theme is that children must rediscover basic arithmetic for themselves. Schools can't actually teach much of anything. 

Please see "36: The Assault on Math." Long story short: constructivism is the sophistry of choice in this assault.  



This small part of a teacher's letter to does a great job of summing up the abyss called Constructivism:   

"My superiors complain that I need to have my students in cooperative groups (AKA useless chatter), in learning stations (AKA playing with toys), and that I need to refrain from correcting children for their mistakes and instead guide them with poignant questions to the right answer. I could spend a whole day or longer probing and cueing a child to give an answer, when he/she doesn't have the frame of previous knowledge from which to derive the answer..."

Now imagine that these strategies dominate from elementary to high school. Will these students know anything? Very little. But they will be graded by Alternative Assessment Techniques (also known as Authentic Assessment) and given A's and B's. In fairness, they have learned all that the program intended them to learn.    




© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009-11