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More on Constructivism (John Dewey)

Ardent Readers:

Apparently my last missive ruffled some feathers, which I knew would happen sooner or later.  It is one thing to express self-righteous indignation about ed school, but when it crosses the line into criticism of constructivist or “discovery learning”, then it’s like a Congressman talking about revamping Social Security. 

The terms “constructivist” and “discovery learning” mean different things to different people.  To the ed school gurus as well as book publisher/snake oil salesmen peddling their wares to school boards who eat this stuff up (and make the final decisions on what textbooks to adopt) it means students construct their own knowledge out of whole cloth.  To the more traditional-minded, it means the connection that students make between information given to them directly and applied in new situations, or which lead to new insights.  

Students may remember having made a connection all on their own, but may not remember the guidance and information that a teacher or book imparted that got them there.  There may be an “illusion” of pure discovery at work here: people see what they want to see.  One interesting case in point is the TIMSS Videotape classroom study of math and science classes in other countries.  When the video was released, constructivists said “See? See? Japanese students work in groups, are given challenging problems without instruction on how to solve them, and the student has to invent his or her own solutions.” 

But an interesting paper by Alan Siegel of NYU in fact shows just the opposite. (You can find his paper here, but best to right click and then download rather than try to view online; it takes forever that way which may result in adding to an already foul mood for some of you after reading what I have to say in this letter.)  Siegel describes the presentation of a geometry problem in a Japanese classroom and notes that the teacher provides a key theorem to students prior to presenting them with a problem to solve using that theorem. 

The problem was quite good and since all of us in Mr. NCTM’s class each have to present a problem to the class during the semester, I chose that one.  I thought it would be interesting to see just how easy or hard it would be for the students in class to solve the problem given the theorem prior to the problem, just like in the Japanese classroom.  In the video, the eighth graders were not able to solve it, even with that knowledge; they eventually got it through expert coaching from the teacher.  Many constructivists do not seem to remember the teacher providing the theorem beforehand, nor that the teacher was a “sage on the stage” disguised as a “guide on the side”.  

So I presented the problem to the class, saying I would like their feedback on whether such problem is appropriate for eighth graders.  After my initial presentation of the problem I told them I would give them three minutes to work on it, but not to feel they had to solve it—I just wanted to reconvene at that time and then discuss it as a class. (This is in fact what they did in the Japanese classroom).  All fell silent and worked at their desks.  (Note to adherents of people-working-in-small-groups:  In our class, when we are given a problem to solve, most of us like to solve it in isolation.  When instructed to work in groups, one person in the group generally dominates.  My mind becomes paralyzed and I crave being left to my own devices.)

After about a minute, I saw that people were perplexed, not getting anywhere, and I suddenly realized that in my excitement: I forgot to present the theorem they would need to solve the problem.  I apologized and called for their attention and explained the key theorem they would need.  

Now, I fully expected that no one would solve the problem in the three minutes and I would have to be “guide on the side” and coach them to see how to apply the theorem, thus proving to all who believe in constructivism that students can still “discover” when given information directly.  I forgot that my classmates all have a math or science background and are not eighth graders. Three of my classmates solved it within a minute and others were on their way.  Nevertheless, my oversight in not presenting the theorem did reveal something important:  As smart and experienced as my classmates are, no one was having any great insights into a solution until I presented the theorem. 

I led a discussion about the appropriateness of the problem for eighth graders.  The people who solved the problem immediately thought that perhaps I should not give the theorem and let them “discover” it.  Others who had a tougher time with the problem said, well, if you did that, maybe you should coach them to come up with the theorem rather than expecting them to do it on their own.  Or maybe giving them the theorem wasn’t such a bad thing.   

I suspect that the ones who had the easiest time were under the illusion that the theorem was superfluous and easily discovered.  They forgot that a few minutes prior they were struggling until I told them what they needed to know.  Just like people who in their memory believe they discovered all that was important in math.  In short, anyone who was a constructivist at the beginning of the evening, was still a constructivist at the end of it. 

Before I leave, I must correct a statement I made in response to one of my commenters to my last letter.  With respect to constructivism I had said, “I agree some of it is good. I also believe some of it is wretched.”  The word “some” in the second sentence should have been “most”.  My apologies. 

With full disclosure and open heart, I remain

Faithfully yours,

John Dewey

Comments

  1. John Dewey says:

    Sarah,

    There is general agreement in the cognitive science community that all knowledge is processed by the learner through active interpretation, otherwise known as construction of knowledge. Those with large domain knowledge have more schemas with which to integrate new information with prior knowledge. Those with less domain knowledge (i.e., novice learners such as those in K-12 with the exception of some gifted and older students) need more guidance than those with larger domain knowledge. I value guided discovery. There are degrees of guidance as well as appropriateness of the type of guidance to give and when to give it. I continue to believe, however, that minimal guidance and “pure” discovery is not appropriate for many in K-12. That said, direct instruction does NOT imply that there is no active interpretation on the part of the learner, nor any lack of interaction with the teacher.

  2. Construction of meaning is not well served by sloppy mis-tating.That’s not fair to finding truth.

    No one would argue that skills or particular pieces of factual information should be not instructed.In either end of this continuum you have no reason to assert that Discovery is creating this elaborate horror to obscur a learner from moving forward into knowledge in logical ways, good-ness, as a 1st grade teacher it might mean I could tell them about a turtle or introduce one…both strategies , both reasonable . One might be a bit more based in activity and might lead to more possibilitioes in writing, connecting however. And be more enjoyable whichfor me, is no small thing. I am not afraid of stating the importance of that.
    But here I am not sure this is open to much sharing other than a kind of rearranging to suit a self-convincing dialog. You have information to acquire , obviously, in learning about these methods so you can present them and debate them, and no one would argue one must invent language or theorems or all known things to proceed.But overstated in that way you appear to have “a point”. (Tho to re-invent certainly does allow a person insights….)
    If you search more deeply you will find within this theory of construction the parallel theory related to motivation of the learner as well as approaches for the learner directing rates of learning as well as directing the process. If you believe that the material to be learned is “complete” and needs a rote memorization of course, construction will offend you.A teacher as expert, a learner as needing to maintain this construct-you are definitely not interested in construction. If however, you acknowledge the possiblity that creation, artistic process, invention are features of learners you might see worth in understanding the processes that inherent in them and which by instructing within them can lead to their fostering in students.Learning can be structured to increase those student capabilities. By polarizing this discussion to this degree and allowing an atmosphere not engaging in “walking in the shoes” of the work, it would seem you win. But exactly what did you win? When I teach quite frankly I see that there is much missing in Direct Instruction and much to be gained with students actively engaged in meaning making. This may, in your view, make me a horse’s behind and someone to hound from the field but eventually with 25 years in the field working very successfully and raising highly successful students in my home who are among the top in the nation, I begin to think that should allow a bit of freedom to comment. What I see is the poor get drill and kill and the economically advantaged get the opportunity for fuller more engaged learning.Under the notion that basic skills will somehow save them. But you might need to go work in Watts awhile really to understand the complexities. Having students in my room who never used crayons means I see they still have to discover and in my room I have the books, materials and things to offer, and I understand their peers in a more affluent area up the road have this everyday. A natural and full life of experiences with materials is purchased in America today. And it is discovery in the homes of the affluent. Don’t kid yourself. It’s missing in the lives of the very poor.

    Even something like creation of this blog is not what I would place on the end of the spectrum you proport support for-it seems pretty construction oriented just on the surface, engaged in dialog, allowing opinion and self-direction…hum?? I wonder?? Maybe the internet learning community is by definition engaged in construction based theory. I bet that’s challenging those that believe there is no room for this type of empowerment and that education should reflect the swallow of the “content” and the thought that there are those expert enough to be allowed thought. It’s a very old debate. A very old one….

  3. Ken Summers says:

    [Late to the party]

    I suspect that the ones who had the easiest time were under the illusion that the theorem was superfluous and easily discovered.

    Reminds me of a mathematical aphorism, for which I don’t remember the attribution:

    There are two kinds of theorems, those that are trivial and those that have not yet been proven.

    I will say this much for constructivism: My experience working on my own and in tutoring and coaching a MathCounts program suggests that theorems/ideas/truths discovered on our own are the ones which are remembered the best.

    The problem, of course, is that such discoveries are EXTREMELY rare and occur only because a large base of knowledge has already been acquired.

  4. Bulldog says:

    Human Being do not come genetically encoded with most academic information. The whole Contructivist concept is just so much crap.
    People need information to build on. Much of the basic information took Humans thousands of years to discover. I just don’t have that kind of time in my classroom.
    When I ask my Senior social studies students to name the 3 characteristics of all surviving societies nobody gets all three. After 12 years of education they just do not have the foundation for it.

  5. John Thacker says:

    But by the same token, a student who learns something in a class done mostly via “direct instruction” may remember the words of the lecture or the book, but may not remember the active work that s/he did that turned those words into understanding. There may be an illusion of having learned purely from the lecture or book — from the “direct instruction” — but is that the reality of the situation or just another instance of seeing what we want to see?

    I’m not sure I quite understand your point here, Robert. Your comment is not exactly parallel. For one thing, those who believe in “direct instruction” in mathematics always believe in doing drills or active work to turn those worse into understand. No one suggests just reading or lecturing for mathematics. The entire argument is between whether one gives the students the theorems before hand and lets them do active work to understand, or expects the students to discover the theorems.

  6. Robert says:

    “Students may remember having made a connection all on their own, but may not remember the guidance and information that a teacher or book imparted that got them there. There may be an “illusion” of pure discovery at work here: people see what they want to see.”

    But by the same token, a student who learns something in a class done mostly via “direct instruction” may remember the words of the lecture or the book, but may not remember the active work that s/he did that turned those words into understanding. There may be an illusion of having learned purely from the lecture or book — from the “direct instruction” — but is that the reality of the situation or just another instance of seeing what we want to see?

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