Constructivist Teaching: A Definition; A Critique
Characteristics of a Constructivist Classroom:
1. Lessons are connected to (and often begin with) real world problems. (“It is the effort to use words well, to say what one wants to say, to people whom he trusts and wants to reach and move, that alone will teach a young person to use words better.” John Holt)
2. These real world problems often have multiple solutions. A single right answer is rare.
3. Increased student choice is preferred to diminished student choice (“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” Alfie Kohn )
4. Increased teacher autonomy is preferred to diminished teacher autonomy. (“Teachers who get ‘burned out’ are not the ones who are constantly learning, which can be exhilarating, but those who feel they must stay in control and ahead of the students at all times.” Frank McCourt)
5. Experimentation is preferred to demonstration. That means students will make mistakes. Mistakes have value.
6. Incidental learning is preferred to direct instruction.
7. The teacher is more apt to ask questions than make statements.
8. The teacher is more a mentor or coach than an instructor. I actually prefer Aristotle’s metaphor of teacher as midwife; midwives, after all, can do harm as well as good. (“It was never factually true that young people learn to read or do arithmetic primarily by being taught these things. They are learned, but not really taught at all. Overteaching interferes with learning.” John Holt)
9. Testing is avoided or, when that is not possible, alternative ways of judging student learning are sought. (“Right is what the teacher says is Right, and the only way to find out if something is Right is to ask a teacher. Perhaps the greatest of all wrongs we do children in school is to deprive them of the chance to judge worth of their own work and thus destroy in them the power to make such judgments, or even the belief that they can.” John Holt)
10. Social or group learning is favored. (“A community of learners”).
11. Textbooks are avoided when possible. (See Mathematics Miseducation: The Case Against a Tired Tradition, By Derek Stolp, page 69)
12. One of the chief skills of a constructivist teacher is to see behind the answer (even a wrong answer) to the student’s thinking process to find opportunities to teach, often, different things than were intended in the original design.
13. Learning in constructivist classrooms is often non-linear.
14. Constructivist teachers place a high value on fitting lessons to students’ prior knowledge. (“The advantage of a competent reader over a neophyte lies in familiarity with a range of different kinds of text, not in the possession of skills that facilitate every kind of reading.” Frank Smith)
15. Many, but certainly not all, constructivist teachers try to avoid behaviorist rewards and punishments (including grades if that is feasible). (“Scores of studies have shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they are apt to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.” Alfie Kohn)
16. Constructivist teachers often run afoul of state standards. To ‘cover’ a standard means that the teacher is directing instruction in ways that Constructivism doesn’t sanction. (“Accountability usually turns out to be a code for tighter control over what happens in the classroom by people who are not in classrooms—and it has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing.” Alfie Kohn)
Critique: Potential Liabilities of this method:
1. There is often not enough parent input in constructivist classrooms. Standards, after all, are a mechanism by which citizens (primarily parents) can monitor and guide what teachers do in the classroom. Autonomous teachers may, without the restrictions imposed by standards, teach things that some parents don’t want taught or neglect things that policy-makers consider fundamental. And student choice means, sometimes, protecting student privacy.
2. Constructivism may widen the Achievement Gap. Most constructivist teachers seem, from my observation, to be in wealthy suburban districts, private schools or home schoolers. Abandoning behaviorist techniques is much harder in poor and minority-dominated districts. And kids in poor schools often are so disaffected from school that they are not open to new methods.
3. Teaching is a cultural activity. It is learned over fifteen or more years of exposure to the American classroom. Changing the habits borne of a cultural activity is extremely difficult. To the extent that constructivism flies in the face of the typical American schoolroom it would be very unlikely to be adopted widely and may cause dissension and confusion within any given school if some teachers try to incorporate it.
4. Constructivism, because it is new and uncommon, lacks the track record of more standard teaching practices.
5. Constructivism requires humility on the part of the teacher (every truth is doubted; students often develop their own opinions and ways of finding the answer) but most teachers enter the profession because they like being important in the lives of children, a personality type that may make deference to student ideas a tough sell. (“Every act of conscious learning requires a willingness to suffer damage to one’s self- esteem.” Thomas Szacz)
6. Students, trained in the traditional school methods since kindergarten, may be so suspicious of teacher intentions that they will refuse to display the curiosity or desire-to-explore that is a prerequisite of constructivism.
7. Constructivism increases ‘off task’ behavior. If students have choices then some of those choices will be ones I’d like them to not make. If the standard for a teacher is to have 100% of students on task then Constructivist methods are inherently faulty.
8. Posing real world problems means bringing real world problems into the classroom.
9. A teacher who asks many questions will sometimes get answers he or she doesn’t want.
10. Constructivist teachers do less stuff. (see Stolp)